In origin, the Baccalaureate service is a religious service at an educational institution before the commencement ceremony. It is a time to honor a being greater than ourselves, as we heard in Wahab’s reading, and it is a time to be grateful for the day that is before us and for the ways in which we have been led to this moment, as we heard in Celia’s reading. Indeed, it is a time to allow for spiritual, prayerful or meditative reflection.
Class of 2017, today I would like to meditate with you on a paradox. As you rejoice over your accomplishments at NMH, the ways you have built your life here, and your plans for continuing to build your life in the years ahead, I would like to share with you the words of Henri Nouwen, a theologian and Catholic priest, author, and scholar who taught at the University of Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. Nouwen writes, “the great paradox of life is that those who lose their lives will gain them. This paradox becomes visible in very ordinary situations. If we cling to our friends, we may lose them, but if we are non-possessive in our relationships, we will make many friends. If fame is what we seek and desire, it often vanishes as soon as we acquire it, but if we have no need to be known, we might be remembered long after our deaths. …. Giving away our lives for others is the greatest of all human acts. This will gain us our lives.” (Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. New York: HarperOne, 1997.)
I do not interpret Nouwen’s words about losing our lives to mean that we should disregard our health, safety and well-being. Nor do his words imply that we should put our lives in harm’s way. But, Nouwen metaphorically suggests that the self-centered approach to life will ultimately result in a feeling of being unfulfilled and somehow lacking. Our great efforts to build our lives by stacking up our credentials, and stockpiling our experiences to strengthen our resumes might make us more employable but they won’t make life more gratifying.
Recently, I exchanged some comments with students about the concept of excellence. It was clear to me from the conversation that excellence is something NMH students strive for, and yet it was also evident that definitions of excellence varied significantly from student to student. In our fast-paced college prep environment where we are constantly measured, evaluated, and commented upon, excellence can become a mostly self-oriented project. Excellence is thus understood as an individual pursuit and not often thought of in terms of group endeavors. I am struck by the competitive element that seeps through this thinking; excellence becomes a way of distinguishing oneself as better than others.
Now, Henri Nouwen clearly distinguished himself as a teacher at the most competitive universities in the world. He was excellent at what he did. But what I did not tell you earlier is that he did not feel completely fulfilled as a human being in his obvious worldly success. Although he was a much sought after and well-respected speaker, he often felt alone in his struggles to understand his sexual identity and religious identity, and to know where he was called to work and belong in this world. While he was at Harvard, he made the decision to leave his scholarly life and work in a community for developmentally disabled adults called L’Arche Daybreak Community near Toronto, Canada. A man internationally acknowledged for his articulations of divine mysteries and for his insights into the human psyche intentionally chose to be in a place to serve those who did not, and would never understand any of his writings. When I think of Nouwen’s life, I see someone who walked away from comfort and recognition to give his energies to help feed, quite literally, those who could not feed themselves. He gave his days to walking with those who could not walk by themselves. At L’Arche Daybreak, it seems Nouwen found the source of what would give him meaning when he stepped away from pursuits that centered on finding meaning in his own person. When he was willing to refocus and see his source of meaning in others indeed he found deep gratification.
I would venture that you have already experienced a glimpse of this paradox of securing and finding something through the very act of letting go. I feel confident that during your time at NMH you have had at least an experience or two when a relationship with a friend became stronger because you were able to resist controlling the outcome and were surprised by the positive response you received. You may have experienced greater joy in a class that you had found challenging at the moment you decided to not worry and simply do your best even if it meant losing the possibility to make a top grade. You may have found great satisfaction through participating in a service project where you had to give up your time for the sake of someone else. Or you may recall the thrill of creating something together as a team, be it on the athletic field, or the stage, because your weaknesses were empowered by your friends’ strengths and vice versa. In that moment, you lost yourself only to find it again in the middle of the larger you. I feel quite certain that you have had at least one such experience during your time as a student, because you chose to come to a school that has continuously asked you to live not only for yourself, but also for the benefit of others.
But now as you go forth from this school you will need to clarify for yourself just how you will continue to live this paradox of life. Whatever profession you choose, may you be blessed with the courage to lose yourself in the pursuit of goodness, justice, and equity for your neighbor who lacks the resources and privilege you have had all of your life. You know all about this; you’ve heard it in DSJ, SLS, your academic classes, advising, with your coaches and teachers. It has been the constant refrain to be critically aware and to seek ways to bring about change. This refrain is now your comfort song that you will sing to yourself on solitary nights on some college campus or in your new home when you ponder your existence and how you shall live out your humanity with a purpose that you will never tire of.
When you try to save your life you will lose it. But when you lose your life for others, you will indeed save it. A few other well known religious figures have also shared this same message both in words and through their lives. As you leave NMH, why not further test the truth of this paradox for yourself? To lose yourself for others, you will first need to see and know who it is that you share this planet with. In finding the empathy and compassion for your neighbor and the courage to walk with them, you may paradoxically find the vision for your own life that will give you profound joy and fulfillment.
It may even lead to an excellent life.
Blessings to you.