Director’s Cut Features the Periodic Reflections of TABS Executive Director Pete Upham.
With very minor edits, this is the Baccalaureate address I delivered as part of Asheville School’s 2013 commencement weekend. You can also view the video clip on YouTube.
Thank you, Mr. Montgomery, for inviting me to offer today’s reflection. And thank you Asheville School Faculty, Friends, and Families for granting me the gift of your attention. Once more. You see, I spent thirteen years working and living on this campus (three- and four-year seniors, meditate on that for a moment: thirteen years!). Asheville School was workplace, home, and community—my desk, my bed, my pew, and my table. My children ran the green knolls of this campus. Their younger versions climbed the younger versions of its trees.
By turns, Asheville School tested me, inspired me, supported me, bedeviled me, rewarded me, disciplined me. It asked much, and it gave much. In the end, it grew me up and sent me forth slightly more respectable and ready for life than when I had first arrived. Sound familiar? Looking back, the whole journey now seems so amazing—individual yet shared, dramatic yet commonplace—that it appears beyond my full comprehension, which, in truth, is often how my whole life presents itself to me. Something in me bows down before the complexity and color of it all, and I am left with only two words on my lips: thank you.
I am making the assumption that most of you are here today to support the Asheville School Class of 2013. That’s why I’m here. My son, Wesley, is a member of the class. I should thank him, too—for not objecting strenuously to my participation in these festivities, and perhaps most importantly, for his generous offer to mow the lawn all summer if I refrain from showing his middle school yearbook pictures. Wes, it’s a deal.
Since this weekend is about the Class of 2013, I hope everyone else here in the chapel or lounging on the lawn or the Mitchell porch will indulge my decision to address the bulk of my remarks to the graduating seniors.
Seniors: talks at events like this follow certain unwritten conventions, among them that the address be brief, and that the speaker begin with a thanks (check), continue through a few breezy anecdotes, and conclude with pithy advice—for example, Follow Your Dream! Pay It Forward! Seize the Day!—advice that is vaguely optimistic, typically generic, and entirely unobjectionable (unless, of course, your dream is all wrong). In any event, while I can’t prove it, it’s my suspicion that these conventions developed over time for one reason: to ensure that Baccalaureate and commencement speeches be as forgettable as possible, in order to avoid imposing any burden on your memory, your imagination, or your conscience. You’re graduating tomorrow, for goodness sake: you want to collect your paper, hug your friends, smoke your mildly rebellious cigars, and beat a path to some social event (say, hypothetically, a party), then stride confidently forward into your glorious and unbounded futures. I get it. The speechifying is a minor, ceremonial speed bump on your way down the driveway and through the main gates of your life.
I don’t much like these conventions, but in the spirit of compromise, I will adhere strictly to the first: I will be brief. However, since I often prefer to tweak rules rather than either obey them blindly or defy them flagrantly (a useful skill for an Asheville School student, if I recall), I’ve decided to offer a modest twist on the script by starting with the advice (after all, it’s usually the most forgettable part of these forgettable talks). That should leave me a few minutes to squeeze in the anecdotes.
My advice is two-fold:
First, Find Wise People. I wish I had done more of this along the way. You may forget the advice I share today, these few thin stalks, and you probably should. But if you seek out genuinely wise friends and mentors, you will receive a whole growing season of advice, a harvest you can store up in your memory and in your heart. If you don’t have access to wise people, you can make do in a pinch with history’s past greats—scientists and scions, philosophers and religious, artists and writers—but actual living people have much to recommend them. Wise people reveal through their lives a kind of deep inner order, a peace, a solidness, and an authenticity. Wisdom is difficult to define, but I have faith you will recognize it when you encounter it. Even when silent, wise people speak. Simply who they are and how they live offer a kind of gentle and sure advice. Listen to it.
Second, Be Astonished. At first, this may seem impossible counsel. Isn’t astonishment, like fear, anger, or desire, involuntary? An automatic reaction to something new and unexpected? Well, yes. And, well, no. Indeed, these are reactions, and partially beyond one’s control. However, the view of world and sense of self that give rise to these reactions may be either fed or pruned, nourished or cut back. Nourish the capacity for astonishment. Choose a life of surprise. In its absence, we are susceptible to the perilous spell that persuades us we have it all figured out, or will soon—the world, ourselves, and most dangerously, other people. In my experience, such certitude leads to a jaded cynicism, a corrosive self-regard, the end of learning, and even, finally, the death of hope. However seemingly logical the journey, you arrive at that desolate country, the polar opposite of wisdom, a long trip back to springtime. Don’t go there. And if you do, come back.
Enough advice. Onto the anecdotes.
One day, many years ago, through a sequence of events and a confluence of circumstances so unusual that the world’s smartest investigators can only speculate about whether anything quite like it has happened before or since for all time and throughout the universe, this world sprang forth in life.
One day, many years later, through a sequence of events and a confluence of circumstances so unusual the odds of what happened happening in just the way it happened were infinitesimally small, you, too, sprang forth in life.
Admittedly, most of us didn’t notice. Unless you’re royalty, there were likely no public holidays, no sacred celebrations in your honor. Yet, if you were particularly fortunate, one or two did notice. For them, it was the most important day in the history of all histories. It was a holiday. It was sacred.
One day, you teetered forward and walked your first steps. Yes, it passed by without mention in the papers. CNN failed to broadcast it. There were no parades. Yet, if you were immeasurably blessed, there were one or two for whom it was the best parade they’d ever attended; they watched the recording over and over again.
One day, you opened your teeth, and as if by magic, out spilled words. True, the Pulitzer committee did not call right away. No one syndicated your humble squawk. If fate smiled on you with remarkable generosity, however, one or two would gladly have cast Shakespeare aside to hear human language reborn from you miraculous mouth.
One day, you started school. No blue ribbon panel was commissioned. For some, you were only a social security number, another cubby to label for another shiny lunchbox. Harvard did not send you a letter of early admission. But for one or two, perhaps—only if the universe showered your forehead with a profligate multitude of kisses—no tasseled cap or embroidered robe would have been fine enough to mark the moment.
One day, some car crested the Asheville School driveway, and the massive blue wing of Mount Pisgah soared over the valley to alight and linger, graceful suddenly as a butterfly, on your very eyes. Your Asheville School experience had begun. That night, you may have slept in a strange bed, in a building filled with other strangers.
If you were one of the lucky ones who had received incalculable graces for no apparent reason, the one or two or ten who sent you here died a little to themselves that same night, so much did they desire to bless your life.
You discovered the place wasn’t all bad. Despite all of your incredible good fortune to date, you won the proverbial lottery again: one or two of those strangers became friends, and one or two teachers, no known blood relation, nevertheless got to know you, and actually cared about you. And however remote the possibility might have first appeared at the beginning of this story—certainly approaching something we might call, well, impossible—you found a wise person or two, after all, and my advice is therefore as unnecessary as it is forgettable.
One day, though let’s be fair— you won’t remember it—you walked into this chapel for the final time as an Asheville School student and heard a short meditation. If you are ridiculously lucky, the one or two or ten I mentioned earlier are here for you, with love.
Are you astonished? Are you grateful?
Because we are.