A Letter from Despondent University

Below is a letter from an old friend, Karis, who now serves as dean of the chapel at Despondent University in up-state Washington, in WantMore County. We share a faithful correspondence through letters. Occasionally she writes something that I like to share.

Despondent University, est. 1849
May 6, 2014

Dear Trygve,

It’s graduation day at Despondent University. It’s typical Northwest atmosphere. The clouds hang low, and a slow drizzle threatens the moment. Yet, despite the concrete sky, an atmosphere of electricity energizes the campus.

Everywhere you look, families move slowly across the grounds in tribal packs, stopping in front of buildings and symbols for final photos, which no doubt will soon be uploaded for relatives and friends to admire on Facebook.

I love graduation day and all it represents. It’s a day that celebrates the culmination of hard work, sacrifice and years of hopeful planning. That is why “pomp and circumstance” is always so fitting. The formality honors the accomplishment with an appropriate sense of gravity. I love to see our faculty dressed in their gowns and hoods of color: crimson, black, purple, white, blue, maroon. When we are all together seated on the platform of Revelation Memorial Chapel, we look like a human box of Crayola crayons. I also love to see the parents. Instead of colorful gowns, they come clothed in various shades of pride (and rightfully so!). You can see how much it means to them to see their daughters, their sons, finish this race. It is a milestone for a parent. On some mothers, I can see a little smile of relief, as if saying, “Wow … I can’t believe it … Johnny actually made it!” On some fathers, I observe a hint of anxiety around the edges of their eyes, as it dawns on them, “Huh … Johnny’s coming home again!”

Above all, what I love most about graduation day is the chance to see the students gathered one final time. Each, in his or her own way, is gowned with excitement, if not a little fatigue, anticipating walking across a stage to receive a hard-earned degree of accomplishment, a launching pad into an undefined future. To see them, it is difficult not to feel a vicarious sense of joy and pride.

Graduation day makes me wistful. It signifies another cycle of convocation to commencement and with it the passing of another class of students. The campus is never quite the same without them. Of course, there is always next August, with a new cycle of freshmen. But this class … this group of students … will never be gathered here again in this same way. Each class is unique and leaves its mark. As they go, I will miss them.

Is not the best part of our calling that these men and women become a part of our lives and we become a part of theirs for a season? But, like all good things, there is a time for every season, and the college season is not meant to last. College is merely a nest, and students are here only till they are strong enough to fly away to embrace the enduring responsibilities of adulthood. Even though I hate to see them go, I love even more to see them fly. It is beautiful to see them fly.

I wonder, however, what will they fly toward? What will they aspire to do? Who are they to become? Did we prepare them well? Did we call them to pursue something true, and good, and beautiful?

I was thinking about this after our commencement service a few hours ago. We hired one of those expensive personalities to address the students for their final message. I had high hopes for the talk until I read the title in the bulletin: “Be True to Yourself: A Guide to Personal Happiness.”

“Really?” I thought. At about a hundred bucks a word, that’s what we want to say? Don’t worry, be happy!?

Honestly, I felt like I was trapped in a self-help seminar for 20 minutes. Our esteemed speaker gave the standard advice of our cultural moment: “Class of 2012,” went the familiar voice, “it’s time to head into the real world … it’s time to start your life. So let me give you some advice … look inside yourself … follow your heart … obey your passions … dare to dream and chart your own course … stay open-minded … always express your inner spirit … carpe diem … and above all,” boomed the visiting voice, as it climbed to a crescendo, “always … whatever you do … march to the beat of your own drum.”

I sat there thinking, “really?” This is his advice to these students? I question its wisdom. I’ve seen many of these students dance, especially the men, and their internal drummer is more than a little offbeat!

After the service, I walked down to Life’s Hard Cafe (where the motto is “Life’s Hard … have a cup of coffee”), and I found a quiet table and wrote this letter to you to help me process my thoughts. Writing helps me decode what I am feeling. So here are some of my reflections on what troubled me about the speech. I think the speaker meant well, I honestly do, but ultimately this voice was irresponsible. There is a difference between sincerity and competence. The world needs graduates who are willing to obey not the doctrine of the self but the commitments that will demand that they lose themselves for others. We need a generation that is not just sincere enough to talk about issues but has the competence to solve problems. In his speech, there was no sense of a moral responsibility to or vision of anything or anyone outside of oneself. There was no sense that our inner voices could ever misguide us. Never did the celebrity voice even hint that our hearts could be touched by what, in ages past, we called sin. If there is no sin, there is no need of salvation, outside of what we can give ourselves. Which is why the speaker whispered, “be true to yourself.” I kept wondering, “Can the self ever be wrong?”

Of course, this speech is not a surprise. He was merely reciting obediently the creed of our true faith: the blind belief that promises limitless possibilities if our autonomy and desire is obeyed without question. It is a faith, however, that cannot deliver on its promises. The creed of individualism promises fulfillment through satisfying every desire of the self, but in the end, one is trapped and reduced to circling the cul-de-sac of one’s own citadel-of-the-self.

When this reduction happens, we are simply thrown back on ourselves, imprisoned within the walls of our fitful feelings, rather than freed to explore a more expansive and interesting world charged with the grandeur of God. Those who in faith recite the creed of excessive individualism wittingly or unwittingly coronate the self as the authority of one’s kingdom, which means that anything that ever challenges the primary allegiance to oneself is to be viewed as a threat that must be eliminated, overcome or shamed into silence. The cul-de-sac of the self is too small for anyone who confesses faith in a King whose Kingdom has no end.

This is why I think the popular advice offered by the speaker is not only wrong but dangerous. The last thing we should be telling graduates before they launch into the “real world” is to embrace the romantic ideals of adolescence—ideals that are absent of commitment to anything or anyone outside of their own desires. The last thing the world needs is our best minds looking out for only their own self-interest. Instead, we need to call a generation to a thicker imagination—one that is willing to devote itself to disciplined tasks that seek to engage real problems. This will require a patient direction that subverts the instinct of instant gratification for a long obedience in faithfulness.

What should have been said today is that the greatest joys in life have their source in callings to make sacred commitments. Commitments ask that we put our own self-interest aside for the welfare of another person or a people, a community, a vocation or an institution. For it is in seeking these callings that true happiness is experienced, as our souls are expanded by commitments that pull us outside of ourselves in service to another.

When I read a biography of someone I truly admire, it’s rarely the things they did for themselves that compel my admiration. Rather, it’s the things they pursued that were arduous, difficult, that courted sacrifice and risked failure. It’s losing ourselves for a reality larger than ourselves that we admire most. When did it become morally acceptable to make the self the summum bonum of a graduate hope?

So, my old friend, if you get a chance to speak to your students one last time, will you please say something of consequence? Offer them an alternative, an antidote, to the familiar voice that whispers “be true to yourself.” Tell them that the purpose of life is to lose yourself, in order to find your true-self.

Well, my friend, that’s all the news from Despondent U: where the campus is trim, the students are flying away and the faculty and staff, at least this dean of the chapel, is ready for the wide open country of summer!

Grace Peace,

Karis
 
Trygve D. Johnson is the Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel at Hope College, Holland, Mich.