Sunday, June 10, 2018

Bear and Bunny

My Baccalaureate Address to the Hill School Class of 2018:

Bear and Bunny

If the adults in your life are like mine were—and I suspect that in this matter most parents or guardians are quite similar—you will someday find that they have kept stuck in a box someplace or on a shelf at the back of a closet somewhere any number of relics from by-then-forgotten episodes of your childhood. And when I say forgotten episodes, I mean forgotten by you: for your parents will surely have remembered them, even without looking back at the objects they’ve so carefully preserved.
So, as I say, at some point you will find these things. It might be anything, from baby shoes to your first tooth to a blue ribbon from a first grade science fair. One guy I knew in St. Louis kept his sons’ tonsils in a glass jar in a kitchen cupboard, but I assume he was a statistical outlier.
As you will have inferred, I am speaking from experience here. Indeed, I am speaking in a certain sense from triple experience, since I inherited one of these treasure troves from my grandmother and one from a doting great-aunt as well as the expected pile of things from my parents. But it’s that last collection, my parents’ own archive, that I have particularly in mind this morning: and especially out of that collection I have been thinking about these two carefully preserved relics from the Eisenhower administration. 
[[Here, I produced two stuffed animals from my childhood:]]

 I was apparently not a wildly creative child, at least in the early stages, and these two rediscovered old friends are simply named “Bear” and “Bunny.” I’ve brought them along because I want to talk about friendship, and particularly about friendships of our youth, friendships that, like Bear and Bunny, we may even lose track of for years at a time. I want to talk about these friendships particularly this morning because, while my parents could stuff these imaginary companions away in a box for me to discover later, no one can save our real relationships for us, no one can wrap them up in tissue paper until we want them later. That’s work we have to do for ourselves; it’s one of the first challenges of this process of adulting that you all are about to begin.
I have a psychologist friend—someone whom I’ve actually known since high school—who argues that for various technical psychological reasons the friends we make in our youth—our “first friends,” as he calls them—are qualitatively different from the friends we acquire later in life. And this is all the more the case when we make these friends in the relatively enclosed atmosphere of a boarding school, where our experiences are just that much more intense, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design. People who study these things say that sharing intense experiences—like battle or boot camp—produces a relationship they call “camaraderie.” Camaraderie doesn’t necessarily overlap with friendship: one article I read recently described the camaraderie between black marines and another member of their platoon who brought his Ku Klux Klan robes with him to basic training. But when camaraderie does coincide with friendship, and particularly when it overlaps with the uniquely powerful form of “first friendship,” it forms personal bonds that can seem incomprehensible to people who haven’t had the experience themselves.
School people have been saying this sort of thing for centuries, of course: here at The Hill, we talk, with a certain degree of exaggeration, about “ties that will never sever,” but I bet that a little bit of research at almost any other school would turn up something of the same sort. All these sentimental things are clichés, of course, but sometimes things are clichés precisely because they reflect deep-seated realities, inescapable workings of our minds and our hearts. I’m not saying, of course, that each of you has been, or will be, best friends with everyone else sitting in this room: schoolboy enemies are also a cliché, after all, and probably an equally valid one. There are, I admit, people I didn’t like fifty years ago at Culver that I probably wouldn’t like if I saw them again this morning as I walked out of the chapel—but I wish it weren’t so, and I certainly don’t think any of us need to be encouraged to hold grudges: that happens all too often without any help from me.
I do want to encourage you, though, to hold fast to these friends that you do see around you. I’m thinking, here, particularly, about what we might call the middle-term. In the really long term, looking ahead fifty years as I was just looking back, you won’t have any trouble appreciating the value of these friends you’re making now, if you do manage to keep them: half a century hence, you may have trouble recognizing them when you see them at reunions, but you’ll know very well how important they are to you, or, in the case of those who will have died, how important they were. Time will teach that lesson well enough.
On the other hand, in the really short term, you don’t need encouragement, either—the sentiments of this moment will, generally, carry you through. A couple of hours from now, with your clothes dripping pond-water and hearts dripping affection, and not a few eyes dripping tears, you will be hugging everyone who stands still long enough to fall into your cold and clammy embraces. [[The new graduates' jumping into the campus pond, called, perversely enough, "The Dell," is the customary conclusion of The Hill's commencement exercises.]] There’s not much need for positive reinforcement there, either.
In the middle range, though, most friendships, even these first-friendships with their deep and wide-spread roots, will benefit from some cultivation. The most obvious thing to say about that cultivation is that you should stay in touch; and that’s fair enough advice, even for you all, who are perhaps the most well-connected generation since people lived in villages so small that they thought marrying their second cousin was a wild and crazy way of bringing new blood into the family. But, honestly, while staying in touch is good and helpful, it’s not vital. One of the things people most often comment about their deepest friendships is that when they get back together again after a long separation, they can pick up their conversations right where they left off. So, being in touch, while obvious, isn’t absolutely necessary.
What is necessary, I suspect, is lowered expectations, at least in a practical sense. I’m putting it that way to be provocative, of course, but I do want to get at a serious point. One of my ethics students reminded me last year of a classic distinction between various kinds of friends: there are useful friends, pleasant friends, and then finally true friends, friends properly so-called. The fundamental difference between true friends and the other two kinds is that true friends are friends simply for their own sake. That is to say, when we have useful friends, the good will between us and them is based on the fact that there is something we can do for them and something they can do for us: that’s genuine good will, as far as it goes, but when the underlying transaction is finished, the friendship tends to fade away. And the same sort of thing is true with pleasant friends, except that the transaction is emotional, not physical or economic: we can exchange a genuine good will with people when we make each other happy, but, again, if making each other happy is all there is to it, the friendship will tend to go away when we stop finding each other clever or cheerful or attractive or amusing.
So when I advise you, for the middle term, to have low practical expectations of your Hill ties, what I mean is this: don’t reduce the true friendships you have made here to merely transactional ones: don’t drag these people you have known so well at such a crucial time in your lives down to the level of the merely useful and pleasant. That’s not to say that you may not, over the years, be able to help a friend out in some useful way—I have rented my house back in Culver to an old school friend on just a handshake for the last thirteen years, and couldn’t have asked for a better tenant, while the publisher of my two novels is a friend from both high school and college (which is the only reason they got published at all). So a true friendship may at some point turn out also to be useful: but if you expect it to be, you’re very much liable to reduce it to mere usefulness, and then to lose it when that moment of usefulness passes. And the same is true, of course, with respect to pleasure: true friends often entertain us and make us happy to be around them, but if we try to make the interchange of pleasure the basis of friendship, we risk losing—indeed, we almost certainly will lose—the true friendship that not only entertains us but also consoles us in our grief, celebrates our joys, and stands silently with us when we can’t bear anything other than the mere presence of another.
So, don’t expect utility, and don’t demand pleasure, from these first friendships that you have formed: welcome those things when you happen to get them over the decades, but don’t mistake them for the higher values of your unseverable ties. The goodwill between true friends is based, not on usefulness nor on pleasure, but on an appreciation for what is permanently, ultimately, good in each other: that’s what makes these friendships enduring.
Now, I have to consider at least one possible objection to what I’ve been saying: or, rather, an objection to my having said it. After my talk to the whole school earlier this spring on Lorenzo the Magnificent, someone got in touch with me to say that the talk was all right, but that I surely should have spent at least some of my time talking about the life of the mind. My correspondent argued that as someone with a decent education and an active career as a scholar, speaking, after all, in a school, I had missed a chance to commend the intellectual life to our community, ignoring the opportunity to remind us all of our place in an academic tradition that runs all the way back to Socrates meeting with his students in the Athenian grove of Academe.
And I suppose these remarks this morning are subject to that same criticism, that I have been talking too much about friendship and not enough about wisdom. Though, in my defense, I could quote Cicero, who wrote in his dialogue “On Friendship” that friendship is the second most important thing after Wisdom itself. He said:
For friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection, and I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to humanity by the immortal gods.[1]
And, in fact, Cicero goes on to clarify that even wisdom is not better than friendship in some vague and general way: rather, wisdom is specifically better, precisely because we need wisdom to manage friendship. Obviously, evil people can, and often do, take advantage of their friends, but even good people will sometimes, with the best of intentions, ask friends things with which the friends ought not to agree. For example, in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, set in the time of King Henry the Eighth, the Duke of Norfolk tries to convince the central character, the famously wise Sir Thomas More, to sign a document approving of King Henry’s divorce and remarriage. Norfolk says,
I don't know if the marriage was lawful or not . . . but damn it, Thomas, look at these names. Why can't you do as I did and come with us for fellowship?
To which More replies:
And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience. . . and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Fellowship, or friendship, Bolt tells us, is no reason to disobey conscience, which is the moral aspect of wisdom: Like Cicero, Bolt says that it is the job of wisdom to restrain us when goodwill might otherwise drive us to folly.
So, yes, certainly, by all means, embrace the life of the mind, whether as scholars or simply as educated, curious, and humane citizens of your several nations and of the ever-more-closely tied together world. As the fourth chapter of the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible says, personifying Wisdom as God’s female agent in Creation:
7. Get wisdom,
   and whatever else you get, get insight. 
8. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
   she will honor you if you embrace her. 
9. She will place on your head a fair garland;
   she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.
Or, as our reading from the Gita this morning said, “Understand that which is to be known by respecting the wise and by asking proper questions”; or, again, as St. Paul put it, direct your minds toward whatsoever things are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
But as you live out those rich, true, excellent intellectual lives, remember, too, this piece of advice from the sixth chapter of the apocryphal book of the Bible called Ecclesiasticus, also known as “The Wisdom of Sirach”:
14. Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
15. Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
16. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
The people sitting here with you today, I would suggest, are a shelter you already inhabit, a treasure you have already found, a medicine you have stored up against future need. The challenge is to keep them until, fifty years or more from now, you come back here, as worn and unrecognizable as Bear and Bunny, and sit down, perhaps even in these very pews, to be astonished all over again by the ties that bind you to these comrades and first friends.
---The Very Rev. John Wm. Houghton, Ph.D.,
Dean of the Alumni Chapel

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