Baccalaureate Address by Marby Amy M. Ard '96, B.A, M.T.S.
To What End?
There is a yellow sticky note in everyone's bulletin. You may have already checked the bulletins around you to make sure yours wasn't messed up. It's not. And despite what many of you who know me well, including my former professors and parents may think, the sticky note is not a result of procrastination on my part. I did not wait until the bulletins were printed to come up with a title to this sermon and think at the last minute that a sticky note would do the trick. It's intentional. There's a story attached to those sticky notes. It starts with a romance gone bad, winds its way through time and space and has landed in the middle of your baccalaureate program today.
First, the juicy story of a romance gone bad. It is at this point you can be sure I did not order this baccalaureate sermon from the back of Rolling Stone or "sermons.com." It's not often a chaplain will dish out the details of her love life.
I was in my first job out of college, working as an account executive in one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. It was a fun job with lots of fun perks. Sam worked 10 floors above me and sparks flew the first time we met. He was sharp as a tack, with a dry wit that kept me laughing and he had an uncanny resemblance to Matt Damon. I fell hard. The heart palpitating, wait in the lobby just to catch the same elevator up kind of in love. And for almost a year, life was bliss. But it became apparent somewhere around month eight that Sam and I were headed for rough road. Despite my attempts to encourage him to get help with an increasingly obvious drinking problem, he stalled. His sense of humor and my patience faded fast.
The break up was traumatic, of course. When I put the phone down after the final "break up call" all I wanted to do was call him back and see if there was any way we could work things out. The urge to call didn't go away during the first, second or third month. In fact, it only got stronger. Around five o'clock every day I would reach for the phone, sometimes I would actually call and then end the conversation feeling worse than I did before it started. Then one day, feeling sad and sick and really tired I sat at my desk and wrote a small note on a yellow sticky pad. I wrote, "To What End?" and stuck it to the wall above the phone. From that day forward, every time I reached out to pick up the phone I had to answer that question. In the end, did I want to get back together? No. Did I want to feel better? Yes. Did talking to him do that for me? No. And usually, I would walk out of the office without making the call. Months and months went by and eventually the answer to some of those questions changed. Sometimes, I really did feel better after talking to him. And now, years later, I look forward to our conversations. He is healthy and happy and engaged. I'm even okay with that.
When I left the advertising agency almost everything in my office stayed behind. But the yellow sticky note came with me. It represented the voice inside my head that urged me to think hard about the decisions I made. When I contemplated quitting a fun, but ultimately meaningless job in Chicago to spend four months traveling with my two best girlfriends in Southeast Asia, I asked the question: To What End? And when the answer came, I wrote a resignation letter and packed my bags.
The original yellow sticky note is now on the front page of my journal. And it has guided me through bigger questions than whether or not to make a phone call. I ask it whenever I start to lose sight of what kind of person I want to be and what kind of change I want to affect in the world.
I'm not claiming the rights to this phrase. Nor do I think it's the only good question around. In fact, many of you have found your way to my office asking the very same question, roughly paraphrased, "What in the hell am I doing with my life?" Turned slightly, the question becomes, "To What End?"
It's a question that looms large for many of you today. I remember.
There is an upside and downside to having a first-time chaplain address you during this service. The downside: I'll easily fall into the traps of a first-timer: sentimentality, nostalgia and endless prating about how this is truly the end and the beginning of one chapter of your life.
The upside, however, is that I'm young enough to remember my own baccalaureate service —all of the sappy remarks and the point at which I started fidgeting with my program and daydreaming about not only the end of this chapter of life but the end of the sermon.
Afterall, it was only seven years ago that I sat in one of these very pews and felt a strange mix of emotions that I had never felt before and haven't felt since. Teetering on the ledge between the familiar and the great unknown, life beyond the hill was both alluring and intimidating.
For centuries, colleges and universities have performed this rite of passage: the baccalaureate service, giving us time to reflect on this strange in-between space and all of the questions that sprout up in this fertile ground. It is a gateway service, the last time the class will be gathered before you wind up on the lawn (or, maybe the gym) to officially end your four-year journey on the hill and go along your merry (but often tearful) way.
And because this service binds us to our past as surely as it propels us into the future, it is wise to remember that this is both a commencement and a culmination. You are not only asking questions about the meaning of the future, but also perhaps questioning the meaning of the past. And if I've played my cards right, "To What End?" can be the question that guides us in both directions.
To What End have you spent these past years at Denison? A college tucked away in a quaint New England town (except that it's not New England, it's Ohio) with nearly 2,100 other students. To What End have you formed lasting relationships? Suffered loss? Chosen a field of study (and dropped a field of study and then picked up another one, sometimes in rapid succession). What gives this time meaning? What's the point?
Among the Native American tribes of the Great Plains there is a rite of passage known as the Vision Quest. Analogies between the vision quest and college life aren't perfect but as I describe some of the characteristics of the quest, you may hear parts of your own story. It was by reflecting on this ritual, the vision quest, that I started to put the question, "To What End?" in the context of college.
The vision quest centered around a young man, and less often, a young woman at the age of puberty. Prepared from the time of birth the child would have been extremely anxious for the time of his quest. Perhaps he watched older siblings return to the village after their quest and dreamed about the day that he would be welcomed home with such celebration. Certainly the elders of the tribe would have done much to prepare the child, explaining that the tribe depended on this experience for their continued livelihood. And that when he returned he would be welcomed home not as a boy, but a man.
But after all the ceremonious send-offs the novice walked away from his community and from all of the familiar comforts of boyhood life. Walking into the wilderness he opened himself to the voices of the spirit world who he was told would bestow on him a new gift (perhaps the ability to call buffalo, the lifeblood of the tribe, great hunting prowess or the wisdom necessary to become a medicine man or shaman).
In a place unfamiliar, and wild, the young boy would wait and fast and pray without sleeping for days on end. And usually, close to the end of his mental and physical rope, a vision, a dream or an apparition would come to him. This vision became the guide for a new way of life. Leaving the wilderness, he found his way back to his community and was welcomed as a full participant in communal life with all of the responsibilities and expectations inherent in his new designation as adult.
The vision quest transformed the boy. It was the culmination of his childhood, a period of time separated from his community when the wilderness claimed him and he met strange characters, thought wild thoughts and stayed up way too late. The place where the vision was received turned sacred for the young boy. It was a place he could return time and time again to connect to the spirit, but it was never quite the same as the time he spent "growing up there."
Some of this might sound familiar.
Leaving for college does feel a little bit like entering the wilderness. While you have been prepared for the experience, the minute you kiss your family and friends goodbye there is a moment, sometimes very brief where you think you may not be able to do this by yourself.
But the fact you are here today proves that you have made it through the wilderness. And your patience for a vision has paid off. Your spirits have come in many forms —in relationships, in pivotal books, in experiences that have turned the world upside down and exposed people and places that were unfamiliar and challenging. Think of the conversation you had with a friend in the wee hours of the morning when you realized that by knowing this person, your life was changed for the better. The days spent making it through difficult books or solving what at first appeared to be an impossible equation. The face of a child who you spent hours tutoring when the lightbulb finally went off.
One might argue that this is all an end in itself. You have created relationships out of love and the deep compassion for one another; you have learned so much about the world and yourself. It has been a good life.
But the end of the vision quest is not the time in the wilderness. The point of the quest is the trip home, and the work of this child-turned-adult to use the gifts received for the survival of his community. A vision without commitment to sharing that vision serves no purpose.
And now this vision quest is drawing to a close. You are called to return from the wilderness, into a community that is waiting for you with great expectations. You entered here as a novice but you walk away with a vision, a gift, a new sense of purpose. And you are misguided if you think your vision belongs to you alone, it belongs to the world who needs your vision to survive. To enter the world with a new vision, a commitment to sustaining the life of the tribe, this, I think is the point. The end.
The end, though, is a misnomer. You never get to the end. It is a journey, a process, a lifelong adventure.
I have gotten to know many of you in this last year. I admire your spirit, your enthusiasm and I have begun to see the way your vision will guide you from this place and into the world. You will make it a better place.
But because I am here and have just a few more minutes to make a request —other than I hope you will all return the silverware and trays you've stolen from the dining hall over the past four years —I will ask this. Continue to ask the question: To What End? Put it above your phone, carry it with you to job interviews, come up with your own version of the question and let it be a meditation for you. Continue to evaluate what you know about your gifts with the ways the world cries out for your abilities. You will not always have the answer, in fact, often you will not. But sometimes asking the right question is enough to set you off on the right foot.
At a service for first-year students on the eve of their first full day of college, I read a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke. I pulled it out the other day and found that is seems just as fitting at the end of these years as it does for the beginning.
From Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke:
You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you as much as I can to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
To What End?
The answers will come, my dear friends.
You have received a powerful vision and now the world is waiting to welcome you home.