During the commencement ceremony at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., where I am a professor, we will be singing Isaac Watts’ “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Tears will come to my eyes as we harmonize the line, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” Once again men and women, students that I have come to admire and value, will leave our hallowed halls and begin their new lives. In most cases, my aging mind will forget their names, but I will remember our conversations and lessons. These will not be forgotten. These students have met all the qualifications for their degrees and will spread across the globe as they pursue new opportunities of employment and service.
Of course, their education is not complete. Rather, we have helped them to build skills and foundations to facilitate a lifetime of learning and growing. Certainly, I wish for all of them, as they commence their new life chapters, that they can avoid those nasty recurring nightmares about incomplete assignments and courses. Based on Facebook posts that I read, I know that I am not alone in dealing with these dreams. My own dreams center on that one last high school course. It is May, and I suddenly realize that I have forgotten to attend one class for the entire year. Once again, my plans to graduate have been stymied. Sometimes it’s an English course. Other times it is science or math. In all cases, my education is incomplete.
We call it “commencement,” recognizing that for all of these students their lives are rebooting as they begin to apply their education to new challenges. Although my students now think of me as old, as my seniority has moved me toward the front of the faculty lineup, I myself am still working to fulfill that one last stubborn incomplete, Life 101.
In his legal thriller, “Pleading Guilty,” Scott Turow wrote, “What kind of ethical social system takes as its fundamental precepts the words ‘I’ ‘me’ and ‘mine’? Our two-year-olds start like that and we spend the next 20 years trying to teach them there’s more than that to life.”
My parents did indeed spend the next 20 years on this lesson, but, through no fault of theirs, I earned an incomplete in this course. Living in America, the most individualistic culture on earth, I continue to struggle with images of myself at the center of reality. I still ask what my country can do for me. I still resent situations in which others expect me to serve them. I still spend so much time ruminating on “I” “me” and “mine” that I miss opportunities to serve others, to contribute to my society, and to invest in the next generation.
Granted, we need to recognize and consider our own needs. Our finite human existence is such that when we fail to meet our own physical and emotional needs, we lessen our potential impact on society. I need some down time to relax, de-stress, and reboot. Nevertheless, this should never be an excuse to justify a selfish approach to life.
As I analyze my own weaknesses and failures, I expect that you, too, will be able to relate. Turow, as he wrote in “Personal Injuries,” suggested that this is universal: “The black truth is that we are all servants of selfish appetites. All. All of us. All.”
I will continue to struggle with this lesson. One day I will be surprised that I have finished the requirements—the day of my next commencement. Until that happens, I will continue to gain strength through my faith, my church, and my family. I will seek to be both student and teacher, as I seek to help others realize the appropriate balance between the first-person singular pronouns of selfishness and the collective pronouns where we seek to work together in the basic lessons of life, seeking to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Let’s all reboot during this commencement season.