The Good Life
by Pierce Klemmt '72
My mother drove me to Crawsfordsville 29 years ago arriving just in time for my first day of classes. She delivered me to the front stoop of the old Delt House with my duffel bag, stereo, a new Bible and dictionary. That fraternity once stood next door to the home of religion professor Hall Peebles and his wife Emmy. We were told by our pledge fathers that Emmy and Hall were our "unofficial" chaperones on account of their puritan sounding names--as well as the location of their bedroom window--fortuitously perched over the rec room where we had poker, keggers, smokers, movies, dances and other cavemen delights with women from DePauw. But, I swear, what was billed to be a chaperoned relationship with Emmy and Hall, always seemed more like benign encouragement instead of supervision.
Growing up in the Midwest people didn't talk about sex and such, but they didn't seem to mind it, either. After unloading me, my mother stood by the car ready to head home. Glancing back at her boy standing in the doorway, she looked up. The window lentils were lined with collector beer cans and liquor bottles. A brassiere from the latest panty raid of the professor's homes was tied to the pinnacle of the gabled roof flapping in the wind. And so it came to pass, on the front stoop of the old Delt House, my mother was compelled to give me my first sex lecture. In words I've never forgotten but not always heeded, she said, "Look out buddy. Be careful!" (Needless worry, I thought, for an all-male college.)
Gentlemen, I tell you this story of my mother's concerns on my first day of college because seated behind you are parents who have concerns for you on your last day of college. I suspect one reason they have packed this chapel is their hope for a barn-burner of a sermon that will make up for the last four years of your often spending Sunday mornings in bed! In addition it allows them to set another parental model to encourage you to return to church, temple or mosque right along with your first day at work or graduate school to, as my mother used to say, "Give you some crutches when all is not right with the world."
This is the day you commence--these fleeting years more fleeting still than perhaps you had anticipated. And today, as promised, like life itself, "now swiftly steals away." But a day--nonetheless, of incredible promise for the journey to launch as you leave the "scarlet sway." It is a day of heightened expectation that you will add up to and perhaps surpass the measure of this College, if not your parents' success. This is the American dream--The Good Life, as they say. But as perhaps your first preacher in four years if not for some time to come, it goes without saying: Gentlemen, all is not right with the world. This is the American nightmare--and this College, I know, has taught you to apply your energies and insights to both the dream and the nightmare. You have been competitively trained for all that's right with the world. But how will your respond when you encounter situations and all is not right with the world?
During my first semester at Wabash, a sobering thing happened. Dr. Eric Dean, the late LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, was appointed my faculty advisor. My pledge father told me this appointment would more than make up for any "after hour" liberties Hall and Emmy might see fit to excuse. If children imagine God as a gentle, elderly, bearded, old man, Eric Dean was an apt representation of God for a boy at college with short-cuts, excuses, and escape clauses and syndromes for every occasion. Dr. Dean, who had much to do in my shaping as did Hall Peebles, Ray Willliams and a host of other Wabash faculty with us today, once remarked:
If you stick, drone-like, to your books, you may be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. If you are impervious to moral contagion, you may leave, having received honors on comprehensive examinations, intent only on making a million by the time you are 30 without regard to who gets hurt in the process. You may leave us without ever having listened appreciatively to a piece of music or to a poem read; without having looked questioningly at a picture or having been stirred to thought of the contribution which you might make to the future peace of the world--The question which each one of you must ask is this: what kind of a life shall be mine when I have completed my degree? Shall I be more than a well-trained mind?
What kind of life will be mine? When suffering, oppression, hunger, corruption, dishonesty are rampant--this is a penetrating question. It was the question that grabbed me at the age of 22 and adjusted my sights. It was, may I say, a saving moment. He advised me to consider what it meant to be alive, rather than sticking drone-like to a program of studies that would assure a minimum life with a better than average wage. He encouraged me to consider things that make for a life rather than just "making it"-- a vocation in stead of a living--Consider, in other words, the lilies of the field. It has meant the difference between "just getting through life," as it were, and "really living it" --to work out of my passions not just my requirements.
Life can get away from you. I hear successful people routinely say, "Is this all there is?" Because restlessness is the stepchild of affluence, Matthew's gospel is as fortifying as it is consoling-- "Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing--which one of you by being anxious can add on cubit to his span of life?" These are not questions of greed but of need. Take it from one in his "riper years" that what has been sold as the good life a college such as this can guarantee is not all that it's cracked up to be. Advancement for you is likely. But fulfillment comes in drinking from more than the well of success.
We live in a time that sends us searching dangerously for meaning not in what we have been given, nor in what we make of that gift, but for what we desire. So with most of our wits we are out there beating out a living. But the snare of desire is a constant companion enticing you to appear spectacular, endowed, smugly confident, oozing with success.
There are countless enemies that will frustrate your search for fulfillment. But desire is perhaps the most traitorous. It places accomplishment forever beyond reaching in what you do not have, in what you cannot do, in who you shall never be. And, back home in my office, it is haunting to hear the lengths people go to beat these odds ending in addiction, depression and a host of other pathologies. Such fulfillment is at the top of an endless, golden staircase where the talented and restless produce more but feel less. Somewhere, high on his climb to nowhere, stood J. Paul Getty, the multimillionaire. At the end of his life he cursed his wealth and said he would trade it all for one happy marriage.
The good life, for all its pleasures, the world for all its immensities, has its nagging questions. For those resigned to a successful but inadequate life--When the good life is more than enough but less filling--It is because we know in our bones "all is not right with our world." But one of the hallmarks of this college, the loyalty you pledge "in highest rank," is your "deeds be noble and grand." This college charters your success but it also credentials you to amend and heal in the footsteps of those who have made the lilies of the field, the killing fields.
The prophet Micah, among the ancients, champions causes when all is not right with the world. He addressed success-oriented people of his time with this charge:
With what shall I come before the Lord?--He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.
When all is not right with the world, the good life is not good enough until the suffering nightmare of your global neighbors is alleviated. Justice, kindness and humility, virtues essential to the Wabash experience, are ingredients for integrity--and your integrity will be the foundation of all accomplishment.
Bill Placher, a teacher I was, unfortunately, 20 years too early to enjoy, puts it this way:
"We live for sure in a world that needs saving. Bureaucratic jargon disguises moral issues and human pain. Experts retreat to the role of skilled technicians, unwilling to make judgements about values, and leave the championing of public morality to bigots and extremists. Never have we needed more people of common sense and integrity, people who ought to be products of a college like this one."
Peter Gomes, the preacher at Harvard, writes, "Our discontent with the good life is not with the failures of our enterprising system of goods and services, but with the unsatisfying nature of our system's success." The world of my college years was filled with the unsatisfying results of the system. Thus, there were revolts, sit-ins, marches, demonstrations against segregation, nuclear armament, poisoning the environment, our fatal commitment of the Vietnam War. Kent State was our nightmare. Now that these things are over if not on the back burner for a likelier time, I am sensing that what people of my age now fear is when we get up in the morning and look in the mirror there will be nothing there.
Of all Michelangelo's powerful figures, none is more compelling than the pathetic figure in the Last Judgement. The man is pictured being thrown into to hell by Satan's army of demons. With his hand he covers one eye, but in the other eye is the look of dire recognition. The man fearfully understood, saw the horror of his deserving fate, but it was too late. Rarely do we see the truth that stares us in the eye until it hits us in the face. So in the spirit of knowing hell is truth seen too late, take it from one in his riper years that, left unchaperoned, most of us are in the business of getting to the good life; but often, to get there, we put asunder what God has joined together. In the words of William Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us:
College is where you can get your ticket punched to the good life. Yet as I see it widely practiced, the good life is laying waste our powers, getting and spending with much mediocrity.
When my father took the tour of this college campus on Parents' Weekend, he counseled me with words I have never forgotten but not always heeded--"Son, as I size it up, take courses in Waugh, Goodrich and Baxter Halls-- stay with the hard sciences and avoid the electives in Detchon, the Fine Arts Center, the Second floor of Center Hall." He said this so I could make something of myself someday. "You'll be able to do more for the arts and humanities, religion, too, after you make it." Said he, "Stay focused on your success. Don't be talked into one of those "helping professions." I took this advice as fatherly care but, needless to say, this college worked its magic. What he described as "elective" became my necessity.
Annie Dillard once wrote:
I think it would be well and proper, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you're going no matter how you live, cannot you part.
What kind of life will be mine when I have completed my degree? Will I lay waste the powers given me by this college? Simply put, I encourage you to exchange the good life for a life that is good by whatever courageous truth this beloved college has helped you dangle from.
How many parents would counsel their sons to follow their muse, smell the roses, consider the lilies of the field? College is an expensive ticket to the good life. Many have broken their backs for you to graduate. The assumption is you will find back-breaking work to send your sons here, too. But this Baccalaureate is an early warning that life can get away from you. Before it is too late, I am asking you to take a stand. Work off of the palete of your integrity, your necessity, or desire will bury you in restlessness and mediocrity for all the things your life never added up for you to become. In a word, make peace with your life to be good--good for you--good for others.
If this college has lived up to its reputation, you can make something of its gifts, the life you choose can be good--good for its pleasures, and good for what healing you bring when all is not right with the world.
So loud and long, dear loyal sons, echo the song, till hill and valley are ringing--spread the fame of her honored name--I pray your deeds will be noble and grand. Dear old Wabash.