Commencement 2004: Of Trapezes and Tea Cups
Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, families and friends
of the graduates, and most of all the Skidmore College graduating class of 2004, greetings
on this day of celebration and triumph. And a special greeting to the graduates of
our Master's of Liberal Studies Program and our University Without Walls—a number
of whom have traveled some distance to participate in today's Commencement Exercises.
Each of you graduates has indeed earned this moment through the persistent application of your talents and energy, through the toils of many a long day and late night. To the gifts and good wishes others no doubt have bestowed upon you, I would like to add three of my own: one wish, one hope, and one suggestion.
First the wish: To borrow a metaphor from author Gail Blanke, many of you soon-to-be-graduates now find yourselves "between trapezes"—or you are about to be. That is, you are preparing to release your hold on the College that has been your home for these past four years, a place that has provided at least a measure of structure to your life and, I trust, guidance in your journey from callow but eager first-year student to more worldly senior. But now, like a circus performer, you have to let go of what has become familiar and comfortable in order to grasp the next stage in your life. Between those two points—the letting go and the taking hold again—is a moment of free flight. My wish for you today is that you choose to define your flight not as a time of anxiety but rather as a time of exhilaration. As Blanke puts it, this is precisely the moment to
give ... yourself permission to let go, ... [to] embrace uncertainty, ... relish the struggle, ... let go of the need to know, ... allow ... yourself to float in the mind-expanding space and improvise. [This is a time to] discover ... the thrill and the joy of reinventing yourself, reinventing your life.(1)
It is most important that you learn to experience uncertainty in terms of the possibilities
it presents to you—as opposed to the peril it might represent—because, for better
or worse, this is hardly the last time that you will encounter it in your life.
The good news is that you are not alone. Scarcely anyone's trajectory through life is predictable any more, so you will have lots of company as you sail through the air. More importantly, as I sincerely hope you never forget, you are able to fly at all only because so many people have devoted themselves to helping you get this far, and they are not about to abandon you now. First among these are your parents and family members and friends who have gathered here to share this day with you. In fact, I ask that you take a moment right now to stand, turn, and let them know with a round of applause just how much their support has meant to you.
Next, my graduation hope for you is that you always will carry with you from Skidmore the centerpiece of liberal education: the realization that it is possible to appraise the worth of an idea, a belief, a political proposition, a work of art, anything in fact, independently of the identity of its author. This seems like such a simple idea, but its implications are profound and far-reaching. The fact that an idea comes from your boss, or your parent, or your teacher, or your president—either of your college or your country—does not make it worthy. Its authorship might make it worth considering, but the more important the topic, the more important it is for you to interrogate and evaluate the idea yourself.
The Skidmore faculty members who have worked with you during your time here have labored mightily to provide you the tools and the habits of mind necessary to do just that: to test the worth of things yourself. In fact, the great paradox of education is that your teachers succeed just to the extent that they make themselves unnecessary to you. For they have been successful in sharing their disciplines with you only if you now can employ the critical apparatus of those disciplines—their specific ways of asking and answering questions—on your own. Of course, your mastery of any area of knowledge remains incomplete. Having satisfied the requirements of the Skidmore curriculum, you are truly just beginning the far more important course of study that you now must design for the rest of your life. You honor your teachers here to the extent that you continue to learn. You will honor them most of all when you surpass them in your own knowledge and accomplishments.
Finally, I would leave you with a suggestion, one that is prompted by a story from the tradition of Zen Buddhism. It is entitled "A Cup of Tea," and it goes like this:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868–1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched ... until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!" [He exclaimed.]
"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"(2)
Although the visitor here is a professor, this story is intended to speak to all of
us. A moment ago I expressed the hope that you take away from Skidmore the ability
to challenge the ideas of others and the habit of mind to do so. However, that capacity
is founded on the more basic ability to challenge one's own ideas. So my suggestion to you is that you take this simple Zen story, as a parting gift from your alma mater. Let it remind you that you cannot continue to learn throughout your life until you
have mastered the ability to empty your own cup—to un-learn tomorrow something that you believe is true today. The moment when we think
we've figured it all out is precisely the moment when we are most at risk of getting
it all wrong, which is yet another reason to cherish those times of chaos and uncertainty
when we find ourselves between trapezes. For those are the times that force us to
reconsider our preconceptions of what is real and, more importantly, of what is possible.
Those times are most likely to inspire in us a moment of truly creative thought that
turns an impending disaster into a triumph.
Many of you are too young to have seen this incident play out unless via the Tom Hanks film, but in 1970 three NASA astronauts were on board Apollo 13 headed for a landing on the moon. Suddenly, James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise found themselves in a situation no one ever had imagined when an explosion in one of their spacecraft's oxygen tanks reduced its electrical power virtually to zero. Initial evaluations of their situation gave them little chance of returning to earth alive. However, the crew was able to survive by converting their moon-lander into a cosmic lifeboat (a task for which it most certainly had not been designed), supported by NASA engineers and other ground personnel who worked brilliantly around the clock to jury-rig countless solutions to problems standing in the way of a safe return. In doing so, they reconfigured literally hundreds of procedures, and tested their proposed solutions in a simulator. Talk about being between trapezes and making creative thought matter!
Let me leave with you with a final example from Gail Blanke, whom I referenced before. (By the way, "Gail Blanke" is her professional name. In her personal life, Gail goes by another name: Abigail Cusick's mom—Abigail is a member of the Class of 2004, and of course her very proud mother and father—Gail and Jim Cusick, and Abigail's sister, Kate—are here with us today.) In her book, Gail describes a performance of a concerto by the violinist Itzhak Perlman at Lincoln Center in 1985. As Perlman began to play, one of his violin strings snapped with a sound that reverberated throughout the concert hall. And of course, everyone there knew what that meant: Perlman simply had to halt the performance and replace the string.
But here is what actually happened:
[Perlman] waited a moment, closed his eyes, and signaled to the conductor to strike up the music again. Without missing a beat, he picked up precisely from where he had left off. That night, even for Itzhak Perlman, was not like other nights. That night he played with such extraordinary passion and power and purity that he transported us all to a place where it is actually possible to play a major symphonic work for violin with just three working strings. Such a place, of course, does not exist in reality. But that night, Perlman made a conscious decision not to know that, or pay attention to it. That night, he decided not to behave in accordance with the observable facts. You could actually see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his mind so that it could be played with three strings. ...
When he finished ... a split second of silence filled the hall before people spontaneously rose and applauded and laughed, some cheering, some screaming, some weeping. In response, Perlman smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience and softly said to the now quiet room, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."(3)
That magical evening in Lincoln Center, Itzhak Perlman certainly found himself between
trapezes. But because he had spent a lifetime mastering his craft, he had given himself
the freedom to empty his own cup—to open himself to previously unimagined possibilities
that were presented by a problem. In refusing to accept an ordinary view of reality,
he was able to make a most unordinary choice. The result was an extraordinary experience
for his audience—and, no doubt, for himself. In as powerful and compelling a manner
as one could imagine, he made creative thought matter.
Now it's time for you, the members of the Skidmore College Class of 2004, to test your own capacity for creative thought throughout your post-Skidmore lives, to find out just how much music you can make over the coming years. Personally, I can't wait to hear it!
Good luck, and God speed!
1Gail Blanke, Between Trapezes: Flying into a New Life with the Greatest of Ease (New York: Rodale Press, 2004), p. 5.
2Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre- Zen Writings (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books), p. 5.
3Blanke, pp. 15–15.