Commencement Speech--DeNeal

  October 12, 2004

Katabasis and Anabasis: A Four Year Journey

I know, I know.  You’re looking at the title and thinking: “What in the world is this supposed to mean?”  Well, to be honest, I’m not completely sure. But out of the countless lessons I’ll take away from Wabash, one of the most important is that half the game is looking like you know what you’re talking about even if you really don’t. Big thanks to campus BS artist Chris Morris for that one.  No, seriously.  I was hard pressed to submit a title on time.  Looking for inspiration, I turned to the last thing I should have: TV. Okay, not the last thing, but that would come later in the night.  After a couple of pointless hours in front of the television, I had my inspiration: a trailer for a new movie that just happened to be coming out this weekend. The movie was Troy.

So, with my classics background and the Troy preview as inspiration, I decided to use a classical reference in my title. Katabasis and Anabasis, which literally mean a descent and an ascent. For those of you who have had the honor of taking Professor Kubiak’s myth class, you’ll recognize katabasis in its more figurative sense of a process of descent before finding oneself, experiencing an epiphany, or going from innocence to experience. In opposition, anabasis is an ascent or the climb towards a peak. Figuratively, this would be the pursuit of greatness or rise to maturity. The movie Troy made me think of this because Achilles in The Iliad is a quintessential example of katabasis in his emotional descent after the death of his close friend Patroclus. I’ve gone to great lengths now to describe katabasis and anabasis because I feel that college, and Wabash College in particular, is a process of ascent and descent. It is a road of peaks and valleys, a path of growth, and in reference to a famous Robert Frost poem “A Road Less Traveled.” Four long yet short – isn’t it amazing how fast its gone – years ago, we all embarked on a road less traveled. We chose to attend a tiny, liberal arts, all male college in Crawfordsville, Indiana. We came from many different walks of life, from around the world, and with different levels of maturity. We came for different reasons and with different goals, but we all still made our way to this little campus. We took the road less traveled and committed four years to an all-male institution. What were we thinking? I know there’s been times over the last four years when we’ve all wondered what we could have possibly been thinking committing four years to a school without girls. In fact, no one comes to Wabash because it’s all male; they come in spite of the fact its all male. Don’t get me wrong, once you’re here, you see the benefits, but it’s a tough sell.  That makes us special in itself. As 18 year old males we made the choice to attend an all male school in hopes of a better education and a better future. If that’s not the road less traveled, I’m not sure what is. Either way, we were here.

The last four years have been quite a journey. A journey of ups and downs, of mistakes and lessons, of growing up and coming of age.  Each of us has our own unique set of experiences to remember, and each of us has learned and grown to different extremes. However, we all have grown, changed, and matured. That is life.  I guess its what happens as you get older. The neat thing is that we have been able to do it together, and, in the process, make some of the best friends of our life. Like students at no other College, we here at Wabash share each other’s growth.  We have an unbelievable bond of shared experience and tradition that is unfathomable to those who have not experienced it. Because of these shared experiences, these ups and downs, we all have grown.  We have all experienced katabasis and anabasis.

As I stand here talking and you listen, well or not so well, pictures of your last four years are probably dancing through your head. I know that they are in mine. In fact, I’d be surprised if those memories aren’t taking precedence right now over my babble. And rightly they should. This is a day of memory, of looking back on our last four years together. Of sharing one last embrace, one last memory, and one last moment together before we go our separate ways. We’ve learned a lot together these last four years.  Contrary to what our parents or professors may think, the majority of it has not been in the classroom. Sure, we’ve taken a lot from academics. How else could we jump through the hoop that is senior comps? But the majority of what we have learned has been outside the classroom, in living units, from peers and friends.

We’ve broken ourselves down as men, evaluated what we find important, and discovered so much about ourselves as individuals. We’ve experienced katabasis, descent, and tough times. Each of us has our own stories to tell: a stretch of four sleepless nights, a sickness, failure on a test, cleaning all hours of the day, financial difficulties, a broken heart, lost friends, and much more. We’ve worked, slaved, and labored to get where we are today. These moments of descent, or rock bottom, have helped us to discover what we all find really important, to reevaluate our lives, and to grow as people. Today, on our graduation day, I’m sure some of these memories are coming back to you. Memories of tough times, memories of life-changing moments, and moments of realization. They’ve all been a part of our growing up, of our katabasis and anabasis. Along with those memories are the other, perhaps more positive, memories of anabasis and ascent.  Moments when you felt on top of the world. Moments you spent with some of the best friends of your life.

We have memories such as the War in Iraq, the arguments and discussions among roommates that have helped us make decisions, adapt beliefs, and challenge assumptions concerning our country’s role. Isn’t that the goal of a liberal arts college; but we were getting that outside the classroom as well.

There’s professors such Professor Blix, who has taught us just as much about scotch and conserving precious personal energy when picking things up off the ground as he has about religion.

There’s Chapel Sing in which our class can lay claim to being the last to enter the free for all fray rather than the segregated event it is now.  Reminding us more of a crime scene than a school spirit event, what with the red Tabasco sauce, face paint, and chalk lines. An experience of commitment, passion, and teamwork that helped us to grow together. The hours of practice that left us at the bottom of our journey, and the feeling of accomplishment after it was all said and done.  Chapel Sing itself was a process of katabasis and anabasis. While some may have seen it as absurd, there is no doubt that it was a test passed and a lesson learned.

There’s cold dorm. Wait, I’d better leave those stories for another time and place.

How about 9/11, and the way in which our President Ford vowed that, “And so, we go forward almost, but not quite, doing what we have always done, recognizing the world has changed but not stopped. We won’t let it stop, we can’t let it stop, for our mission is to help young men get ready to make the world a better place.” A moment that none of us will soon forget, a time when we all reevaluated our own lives and priorities all while fighting on.

Or the football team’s unbelievable Monon miracle in 2001 and playoff season of 2002. Oh, and by the way, we can leave here with a 3-1 record in Bell games, a 51-50 and 9 overall Bell record, and the satisfaction of sending their Coach M out with a loss.

What about the weekends? Oh the weekends, where at least half of my education has occurred.  I think that college students as a whole live for the weekends, but I find it hard to believe that students yearn for the weekend with as much passion as we do here. Seeing friends have the time of their lives, wake up feeling the worst they’ve ever felt, vowing that it will never happen again, and then redoing the same process all over again every weekend. How about T Chubs teaching us all how to “make plays,” or Mark Shreve and his famous bar dancing at Tommy’s.

In addition, let’s remember the five retiring professors – Austin Brooks, John Fischer, David Frederick, David Phillips, and John Zimmerman - whose skill in the classroom was equaled only by their passion and devotion outside of it. Thank you for teaching us what it means to be a Wabash man!

Immersion Trips!  Wow, have I taken advantage of that. For those of us who’ve taken advantage of the school’s immersion trips, or study abroad for that matter, how much has it changed us? I’m not sure how much studying we did, but we sure learned a lot. Whether from conversations in local pubs, dinners at unbelievable restaurants, or hiking through places screaming with history, we’ve grown and changed from our time abroad.

Dairylicious and the Applebees. Need I say more?

Wal-Mart, Wabash’s savior for all those last minute needs. Oh wait, maybe that’s Southside.

Remember sophomore year, when you got up at least 45 minutes before class because you couldn’t sleep, you were so excited about the C&T reading from the night before. Ha! Ok, so there was a lot of reading, and most of us may have skipped quite a bit. I know one guy that missed at least 14 classes and still passed. However, it was a common experience we all shared, it exposed us to some of the most notable works of different times, and it definitely made us think. Oh yeah, and it provided some laughs listening to those guys that clearly hadn’t done the readings struggle to get their nuggets of wisdom in for the day’s participation points; once again, thanks to Chris Morris.

How about unbelievable performances from our theater department twice a semester? The amazing sets, acting, and work that everyone put in clearly paid off.  For those of us who didn’t participate, we thank you for the show and all of your hard work. I know I learned a lot about my fellow classmates and their respective abilities. I know that I never could have done the jobs they did. Oh yeah, and thanks for bringing some more girls to campus as well.

We can always think about our campus publications and what we have learned from them. The ups and downs of The Bachelor, The Commentary, Callimachus, the Wabash Review, Barrickman’s, the  X-Position and more. Wabash’s first female columnist, who Hank has assured me is in the audience, spurred some healthy debate and doled out some wisdom on the way. How about the name that’s become synonymous with The Bachelor: Jacob Pactor. Not afraid to speak his mind, and always ready with a smile and sense of humor – wait a minute, kind of reminds me of his father Jon, as hard a time as he’ll give me for saying it – Jacob has touched our class in more ways than one.  Which is why I’m proud to say that he and Mark Shreve will be leading us into the future as our class agents.  I’d put those two up against class agents of any year (I know, tall task I’m setting for you guys…but I know you’re good for it).

We can look back on four years of home basketball games in which our crowd was loud, rowdy, and influential. We cheered no matter what. We cheered for Matt Storm and Zeljko Gavranovic, who taught us how to persevere in the face of adversity with their battles through injuries and more.  Wabash Always Fights!

We remember Honors Scholar, a dry yet fun weekend. A weekend of 300 high school seniors who all love to talk about themselves.  Remember when we were in their shoes. We weren’t that self-absorbed were we?  We learned to sell Wabash, to sell ourselves, and to watch tons of March Madness so as to not have to talk too much.

How about those all night study sessions, those late night papers, and those desperate attempts to do well on a test that you’re not quite prepared for. Oh blue books! Things that taught us life is not all about intelligence or talent, because no matter how smart or talented we are, there are still those times when persistence and endurance mean a whole lot more. When we are all faced with more work than seems possible. When we prove our merit as a Wabash man, stare adversity in the face, and laugh. Calvin Coolidge once said, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb...". Another lesson learned from Wabash.

I don’t want to be too cheesy here and spout on and on about the importance of memories.  We still have a lot to do and those of you who know me know that I tend to get overly sentimental at times.  But on this day in which every emotion seems a little stronger, every discussion is a little deeper, and every memory is just a little bit more vivid, take the time to recall.  Recall the struggles, the hardships, and the descent: the katabasis.  Recall the lessons, the growth, the change, the ascent: the anabasis.  But most of all, recall each other.  Recall the friends, the relationships, the time spent struggling for a common goal. Four years ago, at a crossroads in all of our lives, we all chose to come to this tiny all-male institution in Crawfordsville, Indiana.  For better or worse, till death do us part, we became one in a long tradition of Wabash men.  Its been a home, a safe haven, as well as a trial by fire.  We leave here today better men for it.  We leave here grown, changed, and better prepared for life as a whole.  We leave here Wabash men.  Thanks for the last four years, you’ve all touched my life, and I’m eternally grateful.