Baccalaureate Address 2013
By Adam Kirtley, Stuart Coordinator of Religious Life
Hashtag YOLO. If you ask me to tell you how recently I found out what that means, I’ll lie. According to one online dictionary, this acronym for the phrase “you only live once” is often used as a hashtag on Twitter to bring attention to exciting events or excuse irresponsible behaviors. #yolobeermile. While YOLO may be enjoying particular popularity in your generation, it is of course nothing new. Let me talk to your parents for a moment. Parents, do you realize the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” came out in 1989, nearly 25 years ago!? Okay back to the graduates … “Dead Poet’s Society” was a deeply formative film in my youth. I was, like, three when it came out. And that movie was at least partially responsible for popularizing the Latin phrase, carpe diem, or “seize the day”. Now, language purists will surely have my head for this, but I see certain similarities in the usage of these two terms. YOLO and carpe diem have at their core a shared suggestion that we claim moments and act. That is, they are a call to not simply let life unfold with you as a passive entity along for the ride. “Don’t observe moments,” they say. “Seize them.” Claim them as yours. Indeed, the implication is that happiness is found in being in the moment. They’re interesting things, these moments. The question, of course, is what defines a moment. And what might we do to create as many positive moments as possible? One answer appears to be to ascribe to the philosophies of YOLO, carpe diem, and “being in the moment.” It occurs to me, however, that while I want to orient my life as much as possible in the direction those phrases point me, those phrases (taken on a surface level) may in fact fail to ultimately capture the breadth of the human experience. Some moments we encounter, seizing them or not, will undoubtedly be less satisfying than others.
So when writing this talk, I thought about moments I’ve witnessed at Whitman that I could use as illustrations. The list is lengthy. Yet, I kept returning to a scene that hits particularly close to home. You see, in addition to those things that I do at Whitman related to spiritual life, I am also the husband of Whitman’s swim coach, Jenn Blomme. I married into the swimming world. Some of the most remarkably talented and committed students I’ve met are swimmers. A swimmer is my wife and the mother of my children. So it is with the deepest level of respect and admiration that I have come to the conclusion that swimmers are weird. In the swimming world, moments are everything. I have, for example, seen a swimmer finish a race miles ahead of everyone else in the pool, blowing his competition out of the water. I jump up to cheer and look down at the victorious swimmer only to see him rip off his goggles and thrown them on the deck, lean his head back in the water, eyes welling up with tears of frustration with his own disappointing performance. I’ve seen another swimmer come in dead last, touch the wall, look at his time and yelp with glee! These swimmers’ reactions, of course, are not dictated by their performances relative to the other swimmers in the water as much as their performances relative their personal goals. I might add that this creates a real challenge for the average spectator! I frequently have no idea whether to offer congratulations or condolences. Instead, I encounter swimmers after the meet and offer awkward, vaguely supportive comments like, “Go Whitman,” or the swim team favorite, “Missionaries, Missionaries, we’re on top!”
But back to our two swimmers. Regardless of their outcome, they both put in a tremendous amount of physical and mental preparation to swim those races. They both set their goals. They both tried their hardest. They both gave the best of themselves in that moment. They share all of that, and yet the result is a despondent victor and a euphoric loser. How is it that they didn’t both find happiness their respective moments? Or, perhaps more pointedly, do we stand in judgment? Perhaps resulting from our relative privilege in the world, happiness frequently is not simply a descriptive state for many of us, it is frequently framed as a reflection on one’s character. Follow the recipe. Come to Whitman; it’s the happiest college in the universe. You’re not happy here? What’s wrong with you? With this mentality, is there room for a swimmer to come in first and express disappointment, or do we stand in judgment of his apparent lack of appreciation of his moment?
Perhaps some of you are shaking your heads saying, “Tsk, tsk … didn’t that guy learn anything from reading the Bhagavad Gita in his first year at Whitman?” If he did, he’d surely remember that, “When the virtuous person renounces all desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace” (Bhagavad Gita 2:71). This theme of detachment from outcomes is perhaps most clearly articulated in the Gita, but it is echoed throughout many of the world’s great religions. And I think, for many of us, renouncing desire simply seems too unrealistic to consider. Asking that swimmer (or any of us, for that matter) to give up a desire to achieve might fly in the face of what we do at a place like Whitman. Many of you, I would suspect, might credit your desire to set and reach goals as essential to your many successes in the world.
But I’m the spiritual life guy. So I get to say, “Let’s not discredit this sacred text so quickly.” I place myself in the camp that argues that the moments of our lives will be compromised if we seize them expecting that doing so will lead to inevitable bliss. You do only live once (well, at least according to predominant western philosophies), but recognition of that fact is in no way a movement toward a lifetime of happy moments. Being in the moment involves much, much more than that. The book of Ecclesiastes from the Hebrew Bible reminds us in its beautiful poetry that, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The sublime and the tragic … living involves all of it.
Four years ago at the beginning of your second semester of your college career, you lost a classmate. Some of you, in that moment, lost a dear friend; some of you lost someone you admired; all of you, I suspect, lost a sense of your own invincibility. What I learned about Richard in the weeks that followed was that he was a young man who seized moments and spent much of his time here shrouded in joy. But in the wake of his passing, what I saw in you was a collective seizing of moments. You grieved, you prayed, you sang, you remembered, you laughed, you feared and you hoped. You were present, not because you were following a recipe for happiness, but because life called you to be in that moment. You had been given a gift. Your gift was knowing him. Your gift was knowing yourself better through saying goodbye. That is a defining moment. Congratulations class of 2013 and Godspeed.