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The Meaning of Life
Presented at Berkeley Prep
June 4, 2006
One of the great, and hilarious, cult movies that I hope you are familiar with is "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." In a key scene, a huge multinational corporation's senior executives are having a meeting, and one of them is asked to report on the sixth item on the meeting agenda, which is "The meaning of life."
The eager executive responds:
"Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this 'soul' does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia."
The first comment from his colleagues: "What was that about hats again?"
Commencement speakers who are invited to speak about "the meaning of life" to those "commencing," beginning, a new chapter in life's journey are rightly wary of the two classic perils of their position: One is that dispensing advice to the young is an age-old exercise in futility. The second is that they alone stand between unwilling listeners and their diplomas - which are soon to be followed by the glad rituals of graduation celebrations.
In response to the second peril, I shall be brief - but in response to the first, I will not give up this opportunity - perhaps for the last time in your lives - to offer three precepts for your consideration - if not for your use now, perhaps later when you may need them more. You are too smart - I have seen the impressive list of colleges you will be attending next fall - and therefore too important for me not to try to tell you what I believe.
The first precept is simple enough: Most people create meaning in their lives by how they do the work given to them to do - so do every job you have as if your reputation, and your next job, and the meaning of life depend on it. Because they do.
You just heard, or at least you may have heard, if you were listening, a glowing introduction of me as an educator of broad experience - going back into the dark ages before IPODs and facebook, before even Star Wars and email, before you were born. But if my resume had been recited when I was your age, it would have included janitor for a clothing store; mower of lawns; caddy at the golf club; stock-and-bag boy at Kroger; and lifeguard. My later, more highfalutin jobs would not have been likely without these first jobs.
No work is "just" work. All work is potentially ennobling; it may be well-paid or poorly paid; mental or menial; interesting or dull; but work is always potentially ennobling if it is done with care. I learned to read and write and to think primarily in school - but I learned, as most of you have or will learn, for better or worse, to work from work. You will not be surprised to hear that - as a college president - I recommend school - but I also recommend work. In both, the habits of showing up on time, being diligent and dependable; and taking pride in getting the details right are indispensable lessons for getting and accomplishing larger jobs down the road. This sounds a lot simpler than it is, sounds dreadfully old-fashioned - and it is: But sloth is one of the seven deadly sins because it is so powerful - and there are different kinds of sloth: One kind that educated people are susceptible to is to criticize rather than to act, to pass judgment on things we have not done. As a corrective, I recommend the words of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, words I have kept in my desk drawer for 30 years, as my father did for 30 years before me:
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
The second precept is this: You create meaning in your life by what you know as well as by what you do. Contrary to what we may think when we are young, or simply uninformed, the great matters of the world are anything but simple. It is your responsibility, as a young person who has now had the extraordinary privilege of attending one of the finest preparatory schools in this country, to become educated enough to know enough to understand, and even, if you wish, to become a participant in the great battles of your time. This is what Socrates meant when he said, "the unexamined life is not worth living."
One of the great battles of contemporary life, one in which your world will be engaged as long as you live, for example, is the battle of competing theologies. This battle has at least two primary dimensions: the battle between Christianity and Islam, which is primarily a political battle, and one with almost limitless consequences for our lives on earth; and the battle within Christianity between the old theology and the new. Those who hold on to the old theology believe in a divine Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, who atones for our sins so that our bodies may all be one day resurrected. Such believers may be evangelical or not, politically conservative or not, church-goers or not. Those who believe in the new theology of Christianity follow the teachings of James A. Robinson and Bishop Shelby Spong (not to mention Thomas Jefferson, who rewrote the Gospels from the 18 th century enlightenment perspective): They reject a Christianity based on miracles, resurrections and a transcendent God existing in a faraway heaven.
Even as graduates of a preparatory school supported by the Episcopal Church - within which, in this country, these battles have taken their most visible form - these battles may not be of concern to you. But they will shape your lives, for as long as you live. The battleground for Christianity vs. Islam is, mostly, the middle-east; but the battlegrounds for these inter-Christian conflicts are visible in the fights over abortion, homosexuality, the role of women, the relationship of church to state and the goals of foreign policy, among others.
If you confront these issues with a third-grade, Sunday-school idea of God and Christ and religion you will miss perhaps the biggest cultural conflict of your time. And if you think of the Episcopal Church - or even Christianity - solely from the perspective of this country, rather than a global perspective, you will also miss the action: Most Anglicans live in Africa (by a factor of more than 20 to 1 over the United States), and their decidedly old-fashioned approach to theology is more and more driving the global church bus.
This example of a deeply complicated set of issues is simply one of dozens I could suggest that requires so much more than an unsophisticated, elementary school education to appreciate. The history of our glorious country, for example, is rife with lessons we seldom find in textbooks about the abuses and limits of power - but it is those lessons alone that will protect us from the quagmires of the future - not to mention gasoline prices that will make automobiles a distant memory. Our current foreign conflicts and foreign policy debates are nearly all fueled by previous policies and conflicts - whether it was our imposition of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s, or our arming and support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s or our training of the troops in Chad in conflict with those in Sudan for the past decade.
Every political, economic and moral issue has its history and context, each of which requires study and analysis for understanding. Only truly educated citizens, who have devoted the time to that study and analysis, can deliver wise, long-term, civic and moral leadership. Darwin and Einstein, not to mention Wittgenstein and Picasso and Joyce, have made it much more difficult, much more complicated to propose thoughtful answers to "the meaning of life" questions - as has the black history of warfare, genocide, terrorism and holocaust which characterized so much of the 20 th century. The "meaning of life" has been altered forever by the discovery of DNA, the human genome project, the potential of stem cells and the whole convergence of modern biology and computers and robotics.
Either you will know enough four or five years from now to appreciate the debates in these matters - which will affect almost everything you do, see, eat, smell and love - or you will be among those who are asking, when "the meaning of life" is discussed, "what was that again about the hats?"
As Stanford professor John Gardner wrote:
"Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or a prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties ... out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in .... The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into the unique pattern that will be your life."
Finally, my third precept is also simple, but worth pondering: Life is short.
Apple's Steve Jobs, the hero of the wired world, and the inventor of the Mac and the IPOD, said at Stanford last June, at their commencement, this: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart .... Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."
Even as young as you are, 'the boys and girls of summer' as Dylan Thomas should have said, life is short - so make the most of these youthful days by making thoughtful choices, by doing only the things worth doing and doing them well, and by working hard to learn enough to think for yourself before it is too late to do so.
"At my back," the Renaissance poet, Andrew Marvell, says, "I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near." If you are listening, so will you.
Now is the time to grapple with the ultimate questions - about justice, goodness, God and man's purpose. May your lives be full of meaning, thoughtfully constructed; full of high purpose and noble achievement; and full of the love of man and God - wherever you may find Him.
Congratulations and best wishes.