Commencement 2007: Angels in the Architecture
Members of the Skidmore Class of 2007 and honored guests. It is fitting that we gather on this day of celebration, a time when we mark the achievements of our graduates and also a moment when we pause to reflect on this significant transition in the life of an individual and a family. On behalf of Skidmore College, I welcome everyone in attendance to our College's 96th Commencement Exercises.
Before we continue with today's ceremony, I ask that we observe a moment of silence to remember our much beloved departed classmate Phillip A. Eckstein.
If I may be permitted a personal reflection, I want to acknowledge that Marie and I will forever hold the class of 2007 in a special place in our hearts. Most of us began our Skidmore careers at the same moment. You were the first entering class we welcomed to Skidmore; you and your parents were the first group I addressed in orientation. We all arrived at this new place inevitably feeling perhaps a bit lost and disoriented—not knowing how to get around, not knowing just what this new stage in our lives would portend for us. In short, we became beginners together. Like the central character in the Coen Brothers' film Barton Fink, each of us became "a tourist with a typewriter" (or, more accurately, with a word processor).
Today, as you walk across this stage, you will take your first symbolic steps that lead from this now-familiar college existence toward your life beyond Skidmore. As the title of this event reminds us, today you will commence the next part of your journey. Once again, you will become a beginner. Once again, you will become a tourist in some strange land.
Now as we know, becoming a tourist is not always a high-water event. As the novelist Don DeLillo notes in his novel The Names,
Tourism is the march of stupidity. You're expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don't know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level, and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.
Goodness. I don't recall that our collective experience in late summer 2003 was quite that dire. But DeLillo's' comment certainly has the ring of truth.
And yet being a beginner also carries with it an enormous promise of possibility. Precisely because one does not quite know what to expect around the next bend in the path, there's always the prospect of encountering some unanticipated marvel. How many times did this happen to you—when you took a class in a subject that, at first, seemed foreign and perhaps unappealing, only to have it turn out to be fascinating, engaging, perhaps even the beginning of a path to your eventual major? How often did you meet someone who struck you as unappealing, perhaps even as someone who made you uncomfortable, who put you off, only to find out that you had taken the first steps toward a truly lasting friendship?
Being a beginner—a tourist—gives you the chance to view your environment with fresh eyes, to see things that the natives have long since stopped perceiving. As Paul Simon says it in his song You Can Call Me Al, even though you don't "speak the language [and] you hold no currency, you see angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity." Losing those angels in the architecture is precisely the price we pay as we get used to our surroundings—as we move from being beginners to experts, from somewhat dazed and confused first-year students to confident, and sometimes a bit jaded, seniors.
We should remind ourselves that experience carries its own dangers. The company that built the Titanic, with its fatal design flaws, and the captain, who increased her speed despite warnings of icebergs, were the experts of their day.
But now each of you has the chance, once again, to open your eyes. To place yourself in a new situation in which you don't speak the language, where you, once again, "hold no currency."
In fact, life should be like this: In the language of evolutionary biology, it should be marked by a pattern of punctuated equilibrium—that is, by periods of development within one context and, occasionally, a jump to some new one. We start some new enterprise, we work our way into some degree of comfort and expertise, we begin to know what we are doing. We become familiar with the landscape. And then we create the opportunity—or life confronts us with the opportunity—to move to a different level, to begin again, once again to become a stupid tourist whose every morning becomes an experience in wonder.
And please don't think that beginning over requires some kind of significant disruption—changing a career or abandoning a longtime relationship. Within any context, it's possible to take on a new project or responsibility that stretches you. Even within a relationship lasting, say, thirty-six years, it's always possible to discover something new and amazing about your partner—something you never quite imagined before.
So my parting wish for you, is that you learn to cherish, on the one hand, your experiences with both comfort and familiarity and, on the other, your encounters with the uncertainty of feeling a bit lost, of starting over in a place knowing that whatever you do will seem a bit ridiculous to the natives. The French philosopher Albert Camus once remarked that "All great deeds and great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great Works are often begun on a street corner or in a restaurant's revolving door." Never lose the courage to shift your course on this journey that you call your life, to begin the process of turning a ridiculous idea into some great thought, or deed.
Always remember that those of us who remain behind at Skidmore will be following your progress not only with interest but also with enormous pride in you and care for your success—and with just a bit of envy.
But above all, never forget to look for those angels in the architecture.