Commencement 2012 - Baccalaureate Address
"Please and Thank You"
By Mark R. Orten, B.A., M.Div.
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, University Chaplain
I offer my sincerest congratulations to the seniors who are here today, and to all of the friends and family who are here to support and encourage them, even as I know you have until this day. My thanks to the musicians and dancers and readers who are participating in this multi-religious celebration as a part of Denison’s rich history and heritage.
My thanks to President Knobel for his warm welcome and remarks, and to his wife, Tina, for the reception they are hosting immediately following this program.
I asked my wife if she remembered anything that she heard at her Baccalaureate program when she graduated from Wooster, still only a few years ago now! She said that the parent of one of the graduating seniors gave the address (aren’t you all relieved that you weren’t asked to do this!). It was not all that memorable, she recounts, except for one illustration he tucked into the larger point. I’m pretty impressed by that, both on his part and on hers; something lasted from then until now.
“He said,” she remembers, “that there is a certain sign that you’ll find on the black diamond slopes of some ski resorts, at the top of those more treacherous runs. It says, ‘Hazards exist which are not marked’.” This is the phrase my wife remembers over the Commencement weekend at her alma mater. “Unmarked Hazards Exist.”
Now, I could just steal that. Hazards do exist, and they aren’t all marked. It’s an intriguing thought with all kinds of potential for analogizing the “run” you are about to make and it would make an excellent Baccalaureate address, don’t you think? She doesn’t remember the rest of what was said, so everything I might embellish on this idea would be my own. Most of it would still be original.
But the truth is, that is not what I want to say to you today. What I want to say is not as pithy as a ski slope admonition, but I hope it’ll do. I want to say something to you personal and direct, and whereas usually my remarks are to the whole of the Assembly, this year on this occasion I would like to speak directly to the graduating seniors. What I want to say to you, soon-to-be-graduates, is “Whatever you do, wherever you go, don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.” And then, so much as you are able, mean it!
“You have our attention,” you say, “for these fourteen minutes, and all you can think to say is, ‘Don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thanks’?”! No thanks! Come on. Please!
Good. You’ve got it. You said it! We’re on our way!
If you don’t remember the content: picture a sign at the top of that front drive of life coming down from Denison, all yellow and large: “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’!”
Many of you, I realize, already have this habit of mind developed. I’ve received a few amazing notes and thoughtfully crafted gifts just this week. Still, it seems a growing consensus that the society in which we now are situated—perhaps in the world at large—may be in danger of losing the art of saying please and thank you. The inclination is increasingly rare, it appears, and in certain technologically supported platforms, for example, it can be absent altogether.
Lest I seem too hard on our society and culture, however, it must be acknowledged that even as long ago as in Jesus’ time, there was license for concern. Only one out of ten men healed of a miserable, stigmatized and incurable disease gave any thought to return and say thank you. Maybe we’re not so much worse off, but you would probably agree how easily this parable might be applied in our time to our culture of excess and our aspirations toward decadence and privilege.
I am not trying here to surmise or defend whether your intellectual training at college has inculcated such an etiquette, to say nothing of tuning the mind and spirit toward these graces. Some would argue that it is not the job of college to do so. But before you go, I would like humbly to suggest this about the liberal arts education attempted here: that intellectual curiosity we prize so highly, it is a kind of solicitation whose nature is “please”. And that perspective and knowledge and sheer awe you have experienced in the better moments of your learning here, it is like the expansiveness found inside the very heart of Gratitude. Education, at its best, is derived of a Please and results in a Thank You.
Already I have traveled quite a distance from encouraging a simple, regular practice and relating that to the whole of your Education, so if I may, let me expound just for a bit on why I believe it is important first to say the words, and how that results in a necessary disposition in life, and finally how that may yet be the ultimate end of Education:
1. It is important, just to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you because in its essence it acknowledges the ‘other’.
This can come up in the most mundane places, where social friction regularly occurs, and in other more important areas, too.
Think, for example, of the average intersection.
Common sense and consideration would have us alternate at intersections, in an ideal world. It is impractical, however, to ask each person at an intersection, “Please, may I go next. Yes, sure. Thank you. You’re welcome.” And so where common graces fail us, rules and laws must be enacted. We need them in order to navigate the increasingly complicated, crowded, fast-paced lives we live. There is nothing inherently wrong in that.
But a profound thing happens when those routines and rules enable us to never even need to see behind the tinted driver’s side window of the car as it turns in front of us. It becomes, perhaps necessarily, an impersonal encounter which rightly cannot afford to go through formalities of “Please, No. After you…” Somewhere in there, however, the human exchange gets lost and the plight of the ‘other’ becomes hidden. Then, before we know it, in these and in much more important matters, it becomes easy to get away with what we can, because the Other has become invisible, and then ceases to exist, and then, even to matter. Like bundling derivatives or fighting with a drone.
More positive and relevant to this occasion, President Knobel recently confessed publicly that he has an auto-signing machine, but he rarely uses it. He considers his signature his word, and he believes that you need to be able to stand behind what you say and what you sign. Every one of your diplomas tomorrow will be signed by him, personally, as a willful endorsement of the education you have received and the value we all place on it. He signifies that for all of us with his signature. Provost Bateman practices for hours to get the pronunciation of each of your names right. We sit, as we will tomorrow at your commencement, for that long appreciative litany as each name is called.
These are a kind of personalization which happens with a please or a thank you. Saying it acknowledges ‘the other.’
2. It is important, just to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you because they express in language what is not easily said.
Have you ever been in the position of needing something from someone, like a job or a loan or admission, and no words could adequately convey how much it would mean to you if you received it? Sometimes there are not words adequate enough to convey what you are consigned to put simply with a “please.” This happens from the beginning of our lives. More juice, please? Can I please go to the birthday party? Please, may I borrow the car?
And those are the audible ones in our lives. Sometimes, it’s unutterable, as if to the cosmos or to the Divine: Please, can’t I get an A? Please, let it come back negative? Please, let me be selected? Please. Please. Please? Like a prayer.
Saying it is important, if only due to the fact that we find ourselves often defying all reason and saying it instinctually, impulsively. Say it we do, and so say it, we must.
3. It requires at least a base recognition of our place in the larger cosmos and it gives a proper perspective.
All that I’ve just said of please can be said of thank you, as well. It’s about the perspective given us by our position relative to other things.
We are, let’s face it, nothing more than microscopic (or smaller) particles, bodies whose composition can be broken down into the basest of elements. As the Bible puts it, “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We take up, after all, such relatively little space in the vast universe, that the comparison of an ant to the Andes doesn’t even come close as an apt analogy. Even the Great Wall of China, one of our grandest constructions, is but a sliver on the planet from a distance not that far away. So considering our smallness, to say nothing of our finiteness, how is it that we can ever for a second cop an attitude to say “my” or “mine” or “deserving” or “I’m entitled to”? I mean, really. What did any of us do to earn [inhale] that breath? It’s all gift, whether by miracle or by luck, and we did nothing to earn it!
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? When the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy? Where were you? Speak, if you have understanding.
When we say these things to each other, we say it as Divines speaking divine language; one which acknowledges our individuality, yes, but also our interdependency, and not just with each other, but with All that Is! If you have understanding, speak!
4. It is important, just to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you because it elevates any occasion, establishes a social contract, and promotes community.
Upon commencing tomorrow you will all, in effect, be entering a new culture, like journeying to another land with different customs and habits.
Entering a new culture usually means adopting or adapting to different contexts, with different underlying assumptions about you and what you have to bring to the established communities there; different expectations for how you are to behave and what you should contribute; these are the adjustments we must make when relocating. It is learning a new language, and as we all know, there are certain things you learn first when trying to speak another language.
- inshuldegin bitte, per favor, sil vous plais, crap kum crap
- danke, grazie, merci
And so it’s a ‘cultural competency’, a desirable ‘learning outcome’ for this institution which aspires, in its liberal arts education, to produce among other things active and engaged citizens in a global community.
In the foreign land of post-graduation, wherever that may be, you’ll need to know how to say basic things.
In conclusion, who would have thought that two little phrases, three short monosyllabic tones, could carry so much weight? Could mean so much?
And where else, except in the Academy, are we allowed-- if not invited-- to hold up the simplest phenomenon, like a singular word or phrase, and swish it around in our mouths, or hold it under the lens to examine what makes it up, and from many angles? Like a geoscientist does with a rock, or an astronomer with a twinkling star, or a dance instructor with the slant of the neck or a musician with the tone of a note…
“Please?” And “Thanks.” They are never just what they appear. They’re always more. And, as with other seemingly simple things, a closer consideration of them renders a vastly different understanding and appreciation of the thing, like the outcropping in a landscape, or the constellation in the night sky or the movement in the choreography or the vibrato in the aria. It renders it something else. Something more.
“Do you think that this is what we came to college to learn,” you say? “All that research and memorization and writing and rehearsal and recital only to learn that I should just learn to say ‘thanks’ and ‘please’? At college?”
You have been entrusted in your education with something that transcends what anyone here can teach. And yet this is our sacred trust, bequeathed to you in an experience, until now, and tomorrow in a degree. The disposition it will render is yours to contemplate and to assume.
You will, with the use of these two simple phrases, have achieved full participation in the most elemental and miraculous form of life. That you know to say it, we are confident. Whether you do, becomes your faith, as with the singular man in the parable, and your faithfulness will make you well.
On the brink of this foreign land, you, what are you grateful for? And what is your urgent request of the universe? Have you the words to say it? You do. They’re so simple. And do so much.
Go now and may the ears of your ears awake, and may the eyes of your eyes be opened, tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing any, being merely human, saying please and thank you.