Winter 2010: From Center Hall

April 6, 2010

Living Humanely 
 
How do we want our students to treat themselves? 
What can we do to help them to find that elusive and dynamic balance in life?
 

Long ago in grade school Mrs. Malach taught me to call that last part of a letter before the signature the “complimentary closing” or “valediction.” Few people worry about such things these days, but I think of her lessons as I contemplate the theme of this issue of Wabash Magazine because valediction means “farewell.” And in that wish we sum up our hope for one another explored in these pages.

We may not close our missives with “fare thee well” these days, but we part with best wishes for health and happiness, “safe travels,” and even admonitions—“Don’t work too hard,” or “Take care of yourself.” All of these can be summed up in the phrase, “Be well.”
 
I write this in the days following the devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Haiti and called into question every aspect of human well-being. I am very proud of the immediate and widespread response of alumni and students, all in the Wabash family, to the needs of the Haitian people. We have reached out to be of service through work and vital donations where the need is greatest. Also, by learning about this troubled nation and the challenges of poverty, we have come to understand the need that will exist long after this present moment has passed. When the attention of others has moved on, I am confident the people of Wabash will continue to ponder and work to help mend the shattered lives of so many who have lost so much.
 
The suffering and sorrow of the people of Haiti is so enormous that it is difficult to comprehend. It takes journalists such as Peter Prengaman ’98 of the Associated Press and Tim Padgett ’84 of TIME Magazine to inform, to interpret, and to do the liberal arts task of understanding. Reading their reports and analyses during this humanitarian crisis, we are reminded just how essential their work is and how well they do it in the most difficult of circumstances.
 
Tim has called journalism “the liberal arts in practice.” The liberal arts teach us to be awake to the world and to endure the sustained gaze of attention to human suffering and the problems around us. Yet, as so many alumni featured in this issue demonstrate, sustaining that outward gaze of critical thinking and attention to the world often depends on an inward attention to the balance and stability in our own hearts and minds, to the active choreography of emotions, body, and spirit within, an “awakeness” to one’s self. “Know thyself” is an admonition at the core of the liberal arts. Put into action, it’s not unlike our homespun valediction, “Take care of yourself.”
 
But “know thyself” is not a narcissistic retreat to gazing only at our own problems or needs. In Greek mythology, Narcissus lost himself and his life not because he gazed into the water, but because he failed to understand himself and the right relationship between what he was and what he saw in his reflection, his self and image. We know of many who have fallen to that fate.
 
So the inward gaze is as difficult and as important as the outward. Indeed, the health and wisdom of our awakeness to the outer world depends on our readiness to live lives marked by a dynamic well-being: to live humanely.
 
What do we mean when we urge each other “to live humanely”? At its core, “humanely” means, of course, to live as a human being would live—to be, in the resonant Yid-dish term, a mensch, a good person, a generous, kind, and caring soul, awake to the world around and to the needs of others: in a word, a gentleman.
 
To live humanely, I believe, is to live well, to live a good life, and that goal is at the heart of the promise of the liberal arts education. This does not mean that we will always be happy. Vicissitudes of human experience may intervene and confront us with what Virgil knew as lacrimae rerum, “the tears in things.” But to be awake to others we must be awake to ourselves.
 
Just as the command “know thyself” calls us to turn the scrutiny of our critical thinking and awakeness on ourselves and our ideas and delusions, the admonition to “live humanely” may call us to turn those outward virtues inward—to practice on ourselves the very kindness, care, attention, and even mercy that we show to others.
 
The suppositions of masculinity often tell men to tough it out, to sacrifice self to the larger good, to serve others before self. These are not always bad intentions; they make for the heroism we admire, for the commitment to family and community that does much good in the world. But they can obscure the inward glance of “living humanely,” of right understanding of what it means to be human not only as a means to serving others, but as a servant of one’s own health and wellness, and, indeed, as a good in itself.
 
For to live humanely is to model for self and others an active balance in life; and this balance is not a stasis, but an enthusiasm for one’s life, for one’s living, that is inspiring for others. As a collection of men and women engaged in the education of Wabash men, as alumni, parents, faculty, staff, how do we body forth the humane living we want to see in our students as they look to understand what it means to be a Wabash man, to live, in their own way of being in the world, the humane life that Wabash encourages? As a teacher and administrator, as a father and grandfather, how do I want our students, my son, daughters, and granddaughter to treat themselves? What can I do to help them to find the elusive and dynamic balance in life that so many alumni speak of in these pages?
 
These are not easy questions. No one would expect easy questions at Wabash. They, like all the questions of the liberal arts, are questions for a lifetime and for all lifetimes.
 
So in valediction I wish you safe travels on this inward and outward journey. We are fortunate that many have gone before us and we do not travel that path alone. As this issue shows, others are mapping this territory with us and for us.
 
Be well, and live humanely.
 
Contact President White at whitep@wabash.edu

 


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