Today is back to school day for the class of 2022 at my college. Debut is always a big day – this year it’s bigger than usual because it will be my college’s first full-fledged debut exercises in three years. All graduation festivities were canceled in May 2020 at the height of the pandemic; last year, a scaled-down ceremony was held outside on a football pitch with everyone wearing masks. Today we return to our usual departure location, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence, the very location where the 2021-22 Providence Friars men’s basketball team played their home games l last winter during a season for the Ages and their run to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA March Madness Tournament in March.
I expect there will be an atmosphere of heightened optimism in the arena today, surpassing the usual optimism that always accompanies degrees of all kinds. I do remember, however, a “Message to Graduates” I’ve posted on this blog each of the past two years on back-to-school day. While we all hope and want to believe that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying disruptions are largely behind us, what we have learned over the past two years about what matters most remains relevant. My message for graduates today is the same as for the past two years on graduation day: survival is not enough.
Dear former graduates:
It’s not what you expected. This is not how you imagined your years of hard work, commitment and dedication to Providence College would end. Some very important events, celebrations meant to honor you and create unforgettable memories, have been cancelled. They are irreplaceable and their loss is palpable, even for those like me who are used to standing on the fringes of these gatherings every year and smiling a lot, occasionally catching sight of students from the past four years hugging each other, as well than their friends and families, and perhaps even have the privilege of meeting the most important people in the lives of the students who have become so important to me.
But none of that is happening this year. And it’s sad. And the loss of graduation celebrations is just one aspect of how your worlds – how all of our worlds – have been turned upside down. Whatever your plans were last January for the coming summer, for the fall, for graduate school, or for beginning the work that would launch you into your new career, those plans have – as my brother-in-law would say – skyrockets. “We can’t wait for things to get back to normal, until we can move our lives from ‘on hold’ to ‘restart’ or ‘move on’. Until we can stop surviving and start living.
We know, however, that we are currently in the midst of one of those events that will mark “before” and “after” for the rest of our lives. However we gradually define “normal” over the coming weeks and months, it will undoubtedly be different from pre-coronavirus “normal” in important and irreversible ways. Some things don’t come back. Others will return in significantly different forms.
In one of the strangest confluences of imagination and reality I have ever encountered, I team taught a colloquium this semester called “Apocalypse.” During the last half of the course, we studied various apocalyptic texts – from novels and documentaries to comics and films – while being immersed with everyone around the world in an apocalyptic event. Stranger still, our last text of the semester, the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel station eleven— speaks of a global pandemic that kills 99.9% of the world’s population. In the post-apocalyptic world, a group of musicians and actors who call themselves the “Travelling Symphony” wander from small community to small community performing works of Shakespeare and giving concerts.
Why? In a world where day-to-day survival is not guaranteed, where murderous cults and savage gangs lurk around every corner, what is the value of Shakespeare? Why listen to a concert? The answer is provided by a slogan inscribed on a banner on the side of one of the group’s caravan wagons, words also tattooed on the arm of Kirsten, the novel’s main character:
Because survival is insufficient
We discussed frequently in our colloquium whether survival is the primary human instinct, whether certain lives are not worth living, and what kinds of things make a life worth living. The Traveling Symphony’s slogan reminds us that there is much more to being fully human than just being alive. In their intellectual notebooks, my students frequently wrote that the truth of this slogan became much more evident to them as they were socially distant and isolated at home.
A student illustrated her point by referring to Clark, another central character in station eleven. Prior to the pandemic, Clark was a corporate problem solver, hired by various companies to help “solve” various leadership issues. In an interview with a woman whose boss was Clark’s current target, she described her boss as a “high-level sleepwalker”, a man who she believes will become more efficient and productive with Clark’s help. , but who will remain a “joyless bastard”. .” His boss is one of “those people who found themselves in one life rather than another and they are so disappointed. They did what was expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped.
Two decades later, in a post-pandemic world, Clark realizes that he himself, rich and successful, had been a “high-level sleepwalker.” Remembering his pre-apocalyptic self, Clark noted that
He had followed the movements of his life for some time. . . not particularly unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he had been really moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration?
My student suggested that reading this during the coronavirus isolation motivated her to seek answers to Clark’s questions on her own. What are the things that last, that bring joy, satisfaction, contentment, or inspiration when the things you thought you could count on are taken away from you? How to avoid being like Clark before the pandemic?
In another of my classes, I spent a semester with my students in the world of 16andMichel de Montaigne, 20th century French philosopher. Montaigne’s world was violent and unpredictable; in his essays he frequently searched for strategies intended to establish peace, centeredness, and confidence amid swirling chaos. One of my students’ favorite passages from Montaigne comes from his essay “On Solitude”.
We must have a wife, children, goods and above all health, if we can; but we must not attach ourselves so strongly to it that our happiness depends on it. We should reserve a room at the back of the shop, just for ourselves, completely isolated, where, as the main retreat from our solitude, we establish our true freedom.
What’s in your “room at the back of the shop”? Have you entered it yet? Are you aware of its existence? Many of my students have told me that the coronavirus isolation has introduced them, some for the first time, to the inner space where one is perfectly free to decide who they are and what they will be. “In that back room,” wrote one student, “I began to discover who I am, what my true loves and interests are, apart from what I think others, even those I love the more, expect from me.”
My hope for each of you is that you will get to know the piece in the back of your shop. Use it to identify what matters most to you. If survival, simply keeping your head above water, isn’t enough, use your back room to discover what, uniquely for you, is at the heart of a life that goes far beyond mere complacency. Become a deliberate and intentional person. The world already has too many high-level sleepwalkers.