Baccalaureate Address by University Chaplain Mark Orten
May 12, 2007 — Swasey Chapel
There once was a speedy hare who bragged about how fast he could run. Tired of hearing him boast, Slow and Steady, the tortoise, challenged him to a race. All the animals in the forest gathered to watch.
Hare ran down the road for a while and then and paused to rest. He looked back at Slow and Steady and cried out, "How do you expect to win this race when you are walking along at your slow, slow pace?"
Hare stretched himself out alongside the road and fell asleep, thinking, "There is plenty of time to relax."
Slow and Steady walked and walked. He never, ever stopped until he came to the finish line.
The animals who were watching cheered so loudly for Tortoise, they awakened Hare. Hare stretched and yawned and began to run again, but it was too late. Tortoise was over the line.
After that, Hare always reminded himself, "Don't brag about your lightning pace, for Slow and Steady won the race!"
This fable speaks of a truth so antithetical to our time in the contemporary West as to be considered "quaint" and unrealistic. The fable is not as popular as others. But think about it: the race (which inherently values quickness above all) going not to the swift, but to the steady, the slow and, if I may embellish, the meditated.
This occasion is my opportunity to give you unsolicited advice — unsolicited except by your mostly voluntary presence here today. If pressed I would sum it all up for you now in two simple words (a gentle suggestion): s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.
There are many by-products of adherence to this advice, only one of which is our remarkable theme for today: WONDER. For it is in clearing the mental, emotional, physical, and, yes, spiritual clutter of our frenzied horizons that we can afford to notice — and in noticing, wonder.
Not only did the tortoise win the race, but look at all he would have been able to notice along the way that the hare (let me remind you again, the hare lost the race) never got to see.
"Silly rabbit," we might say. "If only he had kept his mind in the game, his eye on the finish line, he would have won the prize."
Yes perhaps. You do that. Run hard and fast and looking neither to the right nor to the left sprint with all your might without so much as a pause or any hesitation until you've crossed that finish line — and then, while you're in the winner's circle waiting for the ceremony to begin where you will climb up on the platform to receive your medal or trophy (or diploma) and a 2008 model Porsche — not to mention all of that sweet, sweet applause — toward what will your thoughts wander? What will amaze you in that brief span of time? If it is your own courage, your stamina and discipline and training, your prowess of celerity and expedition, your superiority or your beauty, then accept your reward. Relish it, truly, and revel in it. Because it is likely all that you will get. Narcissus fell into the lake eventually reflecting on these things.
Narcissus, you will remember, is the story of the beautiful young man who went every day to look into the lake in order to see his reflection until, one day, he fell in and drowned. In the place where he fell a narcissus flower grew. In the prologue to the book, The Alchemist, Clifford Landers continues the myth.
He says that the goddesses of the forest, when they paid the lake a visit, discovered that the lake was transformed from fresh water to salt water. Discerning what had transpired the goddesses of the forest asked the lake, "Why do you weep?" "I weep for Narcissus," the lake replied. "Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus," they said, "for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand." "But — was Narcissus beautiful?" the lake asked. "Who better than you to know that?" the goddesses said in wonder. "After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!" The lake was silent for some time. Finally, it said: "I weep for Narcissus, though I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."
What do we see when we look at the world? In light of Lander's extension to this myth, what does the world see when it gazes back at us? Is this gazing back and forth between Narcissus and the lake comparable to our gazing at our interdependent world, beauty beholding beauty, each seeing its own beauty due precisely to the others' being what it most truly is? When we allow the world to know its own beauty reflected in our beholding, then we allow it and us to be what we were made to be. We see in it our best selves only when it sees back in our beholding its highest order.
This is good education. We learn and teach not only in order to know how to manipulate the elements of the planet and the order of the cosmos for our own purposes. We educate and are educated in order to see ourselves perfectly reflected in that which perfectly reflects our highest values and our best selves. Our learning and our living cannot be about domination, for in dominating the world we will destroy it and ourselves, and we violate the most sacred principle of life itself: that of life as gift — as given (like the very breath that each of us now draws).
However it is that you may think that we got here, whether it is by absolute chance or chaos or karma or creation, no matter how — we cannot deny that it is through no doing of our own. We did not will it. You and I had nothing to do with our being here. And yet here we are. Wonder that!
Slow down and wonder what it means that we are. Wonder whether there needs to be any meaning whatsoever. These are among the first questions that a liberal arts and sciences education can allow you to ask, and it has everything to do with what posture you strike in your life. It may straighten your spine with voracity for achievement or the accumulation of wealth or the acquisition of power. Or it may cause you to relax somewhat into a profound humility and gratitude at every little thing, with a sincere curiosity and blessed determination.
Some, we must acknowledge, choose to take life away from others, as what happened in Blacksburg, Va., one month ago. Some have life stolen from them, as in Baghdad and Darfur, to cite only two of the most extreme examples. But we, as we sit here ready to commence tomorrow upon the world for which we are supposed to be prepared, let me ask you what posture have you taken toward the world with your learning? What are you looking for?
I asked an accomplished and thoughtful student in this class — the great class of 2007 — what gave her cause for wonder in her time at Denison. She said, "I wonder at the fact that I can study the very process that produced me." A member of the science faculty answered the same question by saying, "That we pretend to understand the universe." These two would make good tortoises!
I wonder at the fact that we build more sand barriers for men to fight behind, than sandboxes for young boys to play in. I wonder why we cannot find a place for people in this country who are here precisely for the same reason as many of our ancestors. I wonder when I pass a stranger on the sidewalk whether that might have been my best friend if we had been stuck together long ago as roommates in college. I wonder some days if there is cancer in my body, and other days if there is a publishable short story in my brain. I wonder if my two young daughters can grow up without the fear that seems to be encroaching on our planet. I wonder if they might become peacemakers.
I started with a fable and then made reference to a myth. Let me allude to a poem as I conclude.
If you look around and see the wonder of what brought you to this place, what brings you here and carries you forth from this and every day, then your very work is what Mary Oliver calls "loving the world." "To keep our minds on what matters," she says, "which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished and grateful to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, and a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam," — and (I might add) to the Jazzman's coffee bar and the Curtis Veggie Room, and the suite in Stone and the hike up the hill, and to the long nights of writing under pressure and the crying to someone over the telephone, and to the class you just loved and to the friend you know you will keep — "telling them all," as Mary Oliver says, "over and over, how it is that we live forever."
"Your hand sits in the classroom of God," says Hafiz, "an apprentice mastering the craft of Divine Beauty as this earth spins on The Potter's Wheel." What will you do with that?
May your work be to slow down,
to meditate on this and every moment,
to truly gaze at the world and to bless it.
And may you continually be struck by wonder.