2006 Baccalaureate Address

May 7, 2011

by Terry Driskill, Deerfield Academy English Teacher

2006 Baccalaureate Address, May 21st, 2006

Your invitation to speak arrived fifteen minutes after Tyler Littwin’s news of his father’s release. Indeed, in our collective mind’s eye, “a good man was whole again, with lines untangled, a steady breeze filling his sail, and a quiet wake left in spring waters.” In a better world, Mr. Littwin would be up here tonight; in our imperfect space I can hope only to speak for him. More understated, even than usual, but no less rye, Tedman waited four full days to announce to me the topic; he was, understandably, somewhat miffed for my not having heard him the first time. Remember, I read to you a month ago that he had driven life into a corner, “spending his last days here with his family, on walks around the valley, and yet another rereading of Walden.”

Thoreau’s Walden, the only sacred book I know to have never been coerced into persecution, bigotry, and war, unless you point to the “Battle of the ants,” and there the only casualty a painfully extended metaphor. Not wanting to bother Lisa for the loan of Tedman’s first copy, I checked out the second, lying pacifically on the shelves of room forty-eight. And as is true with all our most thumb- and eye-worn books, Walden‘s spine readily revealed a trail of its most frequently visited passages. Its covers pinned against the ancient oak tables, the book opened its pages to tell me that when Thoreau felt the necessity to deepen the stream of his life, he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” that companion’s discourse silence, “the sequel to all duller discourses, the only language in which we hear and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” In the name of Ralph Waldo, Henry David, and the Oversoul, Amen.

The need to go inside yourself is so obvious, I fear that that we hesitate to say it; so obvious, in fact, that in emerging from our year’s conversation with some of our best authors, I can’t think of one who didn’t tell us that the self resides in the interior; and yet, since they insisted on repeating the lesson, I assume they thought we needed to hear it once again. It is so obvious that we tend to forget how essential and yet how damnably difficult it is to get there. Essential, because a life that fails to search inwardly for its self is, quite simply, a failure; difficult, because, first it demands that you oppose the intellectual habits we have told lead to success; and, second, because it swims against the current cultural tides that allow neither of its conditions — time and silence.

“The secret way leads inward. Withdraw from all outward things, retreat into the ground of your own being, and there in the inmost depth of the self you will come to self-knowledge,” so silently says the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Jewish, Muslim and Christian Mystic, the Existentialist and, yes, the Transcendentalist. By having you leave the sanctity of your bedrooms to come to us, we may well have implied that all important knowledge lies outside in the teachers, who have, in turn, gone outside themselves to find what they know in books. We have subtly, but assuredly, redoubled the suggestion that all important knowledge is exterior to you, by having your intellects judged externally, by invoking the horrible specter of the testing services to evaluate, codify, and quantify you with their relentless battery of acronyms: the AP’s, the ACT’s, the SAT I’s and II’s, and, inexorably, some day soon, the SAT III’s. With all our external pressure to satisfy the ‘God of Transcript,’ we probably forgot to tell you the self-knowledge that resides within you is inborn knowledge, knowledge a priori. Only you possess it, only you can draw on it, only you can evaluate its progress. Last Tuesday night, Solomon’s last memory was of Mr. Littwin’s surprising announcement, on the first day of class, that he didn’t care at all about his student’s grades. Now do you understand why, Solomon?

So remember, tonight marks the commencement of Commencement, that you are about to begin stages of your lives that may last a long time; and that if you don’t pause now to know yourself, you will be vulnerable to all those who will be more than happy to define you, and to direct that fraudulent self toward their fraudulent ends.

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Silence: The self, as Thoreau knew, paradoxically speaks to us in silence. As Herman Melville wrote in Pierre, “All profound things and emotions are preceded by and attended by silence.” Pico Ayer mused that, “We often say that silence is where we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below ourselves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows.” Surely, this is what Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay discovers in her “wedge-shaped core of darkness,” where “silent, alone, all the being and the doing, expansive glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity to being oneself.” Your self, then, attempts to communicate to you in intuitive whispers; unless you build into your lives the habit of silence, you will never hear those above the shouts of all the others who try to define you in their coarser tongues.

A world that confuses increasingly means and ends, that devotes infinitely more effort to the stylish production and diffusion of sound than it does to the thoughts that might be communicated with that sound, increasingly robs us of those moments in which we are allowed an intimation of ourselves. For decades, adolescents, tired of formulas and vocabulary lists, locked the door against parents and siblings, and lay on the bed thinking–according to the world’s currency–about nothing. They were, in fact, beyond and below thought, in the intuitive discovery of self, the mind’s natural complement to the body’s frightening and wonderful changes. Now the decibel din invades the mind through those ubiquitous little wires, so that the thirteen-year-old confounds his Ipod’s insistent bass with the very beating of his heart. The adult hand, mistaking silence for loneliness, moves reflexively from ignition to surround sound as we enter the potentially fruitful isolation of our car. The thumb, even more fearful of silent spaces, fills the senses with television’s vapid babble should we ever find ourselves home alone. The cycle, sadly, is predictably vicious: strangers to silence, we become strangers to ourselves; fearful of that stranger, we become fearful of silence. Victims of this most ironic sort of xenophobia, we employ our machines as weapons to protect ourselves from ourselves.

Time: Modern cultures, and none more so than our little subculture at Deerfield, have been even more methodical in filling time, than they have in filling silence. Much of this comes, I fear, from the beliefs behind a cliche that, like many cliches, have the nasty habit of revealing the soul of the cultures that concoct them. “Time is Money,”meaning that in a world that has systematically denied the importance of all but material value, time invested in knowing yourself-since self-knowledge doesn’t appear as an indicator of your gross financial worth-diminishes you. These cultural accountants are, of course, according to their own criteria, right. People who know themselves are notoriously indifferent to the world’s measurement of worth. As far as I can tell, Mr. Littwin possessed only two, equally tattered coats: the one that sat undisturbed for 30 years on the back of his chair in Room 48; the other, this one harder to locate, must have loitered for thirty years in the faculty cloakroom, because we never saw it on him immediately before or after a sit-down meal.

When I was about to leave the Marine Corps, a perverse curiosity suggested I attend the recruiting lectures by the head hunters from the FBI, the CIA and IBM, and several other corporations who hide their real intentions behind the slick efficiency of initials. All three speakers–curiously, memory suggests they were all the same fellow–agreed on one thing. They wanted their recruits to report for duty within six weeks after their discharge from the Marine Corps, which, as far as I could figure out, meant that they didn’t want anyone to get far enough away in time and space from a para-military existence to, in the diction of the day, “find himself.” They obviously worried that the fellow who has a good sense of who he is might resist the self they hoped to create in their indoctrination.

An anecdote–stuff from a bad novel, but true. As I shaved one last time on the day of my discharge, my Marine Corps watch slip-slid off the porcelain sink and broke. I didn’t buy a replacement for a decade. I can’t remember that Mr. Littwin ever wore one.

And just as we see our self with washed eyes in silence and time, thus do we see the world when we emerge. Leslie Hotchkiss eloquently told us how quickly Mr. Littwin could descend into silence and time, and, then, without transition, emerge with pearls for his students:

I remember walking into a dark classroom one day – Mr. Littwin often held class under only the natural light from the three large windows that lined the far side of the classroom. Instead of commencing class immediately, Mr. Littwin simply sat in his chair, silently, peacefully, glancing between the three windows. We all sat, waiting, knowing he would soon reveal that day’s life lesson. “Each window,” he explained “reveals a statue of our country’s history.” He then proceeded to explain that from his angle, from that particular seat, from his sole point of view, he could see the Brick Church, the post office, and the branches of the tree pressed against the glass of the middle window. These three images, he explained, represented religion, government, and nature -the three pillars of American History.

Now, I wouldn’t be bothering you with this lofty idealism unless I thought it could be applied to your lives almost immediately. Next Monday morning-probably very late-you will awaken to one of the most important spaces in your life. Many young people have found it to be an enemy; I suggest you recognize it as a friend. Many have found it a lonely space; I suggest you fill it with yourself. It is unlikely that you will ever again be as free from the world’s impositions upon your time and silence; from being the self that classmates, parents, teachers-almost always with the best intentions-have demanded you be. We have all implied that you could see yourself in the images we reflected back to you. We were so emphatic in defining you, in fact, that it probably seemed presumptuous to doubt us. But all people can ever tell you about yourself is what you are in relation to their world or, even more dangerous, what they would have you be. Eager to please, we accept this handful of fragments as our selves; hungry as we are for human affection, we gladly piece ourselves together accordingly.

From tomorrow until you set foot on campus in the fall, you will be free of our definitions of who we think you are; you have three months to discover who you really are. And believe me, before those special interest groups–the young Republicans, the politically correct bunch, the hyphenated American clubs–; before the Greeks try to circumscribe you within, once again, the narrow compass of three letter–Delta Delta Delta, Phi Sigma Kappa–you had better arm yourself with your self.

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I am not suggesting that once you take this interior voyage you should refuse to come out again. I am suggesting that, unless you find your self in time and silence, you are little good to us who so desperately need you. It is, in fact, in that silence when our self speaks to us beyond words, we find, too, the other, our neighbor, not so much right beside, as inside ourselves. Having discovered the depths and worth of our own being we recognize in the other the same interior worth; we realize that they are not other at all.

When my wife and I first looked out across the New Zealand bay that has become our summer home, we could see only a single shiny tip of rock, about the size of, say, Paris Hilton, breaking the surface. When we returned the following morning at low tide, the base of that tip spread walrus like across the entire crescent, the geological feet, in fact, of the two craggy cliffs standing guard at each end of the bay. Volcanic, mollusked, the rock, when you walked out to touch it, felt like eternity. Mrs. Ramsay, asking always, “What is this thing called ‘knowing people?’” intuited that the apparitions, the shiny tip, the things you think you know us by are childish. And that it is only when we discover the base of ourselves spreading limitlessly, do we intuit that others too are unfathomly deep.

The theologian Paul Tillich, wrestling with the “riddle of inequality,” tries to understand what his Christ could have meant in the ostensibly offensive claim that “to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mk. 4-25). Tillich argues that, if we define what we have as “material goods, intellectual gifts and the advantages to increase both,” we cannot deny that life confirms Christ’s words abundantly. This morning’s news revealed that some of the desperately poor who had lost the little they did have to the a 9.0 earthquake and the attendant Tsunami, had to leave behind what little they could amass in these last two years in the face of an erupting volcano. Tillich concludes that to live with ourselves in such a world “we must realize the ultimate unity of all beings, how our deep and eternal self is inextricably tied to that of all others. We participate in each other’s having and we participate in each other’s not having.”

As King Lear finally figured out, we, who have so much must “show the heavens more just.” We must experience what Jean-Paul Sartre calls anguish, the feeling that we cannot help escape from our deep responsibility to others; the gnawing realization that even when we act to shake the superfluous to those who have not, inequality will remain a constant in the human condition, a realization that leads not to complacency but to the resolution that we must give even more to our other selves. Sure, many of those who have fled from their responsibility appear to have eluded, too, their anguish; surely, these people, Mr. Littwin would have argued, have eluded themselves. He gave his life to make such an escape impossible for you.

(With gratitude and apologies to W. H. Auden.)

For Tedman it was his last morning as himself.
Lisa had heard all night his other side arrangements,
Watched his fingers find an elusive chord.
Then the provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his students.