"Walden in the Rearview Mirror"
by Michael Quiner, Director of Administrative Technology
Saturday, May 20, 2006 - Whitman College
“Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear” - One can’t hardly drive safely without receiving that advice. While giving a backward glance, Henry David Thoreau wrote clearly of his experiences at Walden Pond (he called it ‘the woods”) after he left that self-imposed and largely symbolic isolation.
Your time at Whitman’s “woods” may cause you to reflect some of Thoreau’s feelings ... “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately …” Now, after a few years, some of you may mirror his further thoughts ... “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one…” Before you leave, I would like to direct your focus to one item in the rearview mirror that looms closer, and is needed more, than it might at first appear.
Thoreau loved to discuss his ideas on many subjects: economy, nature, and simplicity. However, he favored the topic of charity, returning to it eight times in his published account. He posed as a misanthrope, saying of charity “I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.” Regardless of his claims, a warm hospitality resonates when he explains “goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins.”
In Buddhism the perfection of charity carries one to Nirvana. It is the first “Paramitas”, or practice. Your parents have been practicing on you for years now, and while they may not feel close to nirvana yet, they have probably independently discovered one of Albert Einstein's most enlightened concepts (not the one having to do with energy and mass). I call it “The theory of relatives,” He said “one knows from daily life that one exists for other people – first of all, for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent.” Einstein didn’t stop with just describing his loved ones; he includes others “the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men.”
I am here representing all the staff of Whitman College, and while many of us are unknown to you by face or name, our sympathy has been intended as support for you.
To a Sunni Muslim, charity is called “Zakat” and is considered one of the five pillars of Islam. Charity is a load-bearing pillar in any successful society, organization or partnership. While my co-workers and I receive compensation for our skills, labor and time, we consider our integrity, our loyalty and our empathy beyond price. We give those to Whitman and her students as an act of charity.
Just like Thoreau’s neighbor – we often find the axe we lend returned sharper than when we left it. Thank you ... you have returned the kindness in too many instances to catalogue, but I would like to give one example. I serve as part of technology services. In that ever evolving field, you have charitably been patient through web registrations and windows updates (well, reasonably patient) and given us the benefit of your doubt through many changes.
Having expressed my gratitude, I likewise encourage you to thank your professors. The early Christian writer Paul advised the followers in Corinth “Though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge … and have not charity, I am nothing.” The pinnacle of scholarship is not found in uncovering the mysteries or mastering the knowledge (even if you are majoring in Biochemistry or Astrophysics.) The summit is reached when faculty share their research with the world and their passion for learning with their students.
Following the example of those who sharpen our axe, parents and teachers and strangers, and taking some advice from Paul, we need to “Seek after Charity.” In the private chambers of our life, in the most cherished relationships, and at home - we will find that “Charity never faileth.” We need to seek after charity in our neighborhoods, in the halls of the academy, even backing out of a parking spot - because “Charity never faileth.” We need to seek after charity as a nation dealing with other cultures. Instead of being known as the people with the biggest appetites, or the biggest guns, if rather we were known as the people with the biggest hearts, charity would never fail us.
Looking at Walden in the rearview mirror, Henry David Thoreau left us with this optimistic promise - “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in the common hours.”
Yes, and please remember “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”