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Chancellor bids farewell to the Classes of 2003

May. 9, 2003, 11:50 AM

Chancellor’s farewell remarks to graduates
Click to listen (16:35) .mp3 format .wav format .m4a format NOTE: text posted below. Chancellor’s introductory remarks
and the invocation by university chaplain Gay Welch

Click to listen (2:59) .mp3 format .wav format Chancellor’s awarding of Founder’s Medals
Click to listen (12:47) .mp3 format .wav format Chancellor’s recognition of Emeriti and members of the Board of Trust
Click to listen (6:09) .mp3 format .wav format Excerpt from the processional played by the Nashville Chamber Brass Society conducted by Eberhard Ramm
Click to listen (5:06) .mp3 format(Editor’s Note: The following text is of Chancellor Gordon Gee’s address, as prepared for delivery at the May 9, 2003, Commencement exercises.) As many of you may be aware, I woke up one morning in March to find myself dead. Religious and folkloric traditions the world round hold that sometimes it takes a little time for the newly deceased to realize he is dead, so the fact that I had woken up that morning really was not good proof enough. My first inkling that all was not as it should be and that this was not an ordinary day, but in fact the day of my demise, occurred when a tearful undergraduate in Rand ran up to me, flung her arms around my neck, and cried, “Chancellor Gee, I am so sorry you are dead”. When I turned and saw the mock Hustler on the stands, I realized what had happened, and that if I was not dead, I now had the hard task of proving it. Now, I have had to prove a lot of things in my time, but the fact that I was indeed alive had never been one of them. It was a heavier burden of proof than I had imagined. If I had thought that proving my continued existence would be easy, I was wrong – dead wrong. I posted a photograph that I hoped would do the trick plus a note to the University populace attesting that I was indeed fogging up the mirror. But these efforts only provoked an e-mail from a student with Gothic propensities who noted that I had neglected to mention whether or not I was casting a reflection in the mirror, and that while I may not be dead, I may in fact be undead. She assured me that this was cool with her, but I was nevertheless disconcerted. What if I were dead – or undead? My world started to unravel. I had the office at Owen, our business school, calling mine to suggest that given the current economic climate it really would be in the best taste and class for me to return the flowers they had sent. I had the Divinity School wondering if I had set a new precedent for resurrection in fewer than three days. To which I could only reply: Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication, and we have an efficient and speedy Public Affairs division, but that answer just sent them into another doctrinal tizzy. I will let you take on faith whatever you want to believe. But if I have ever said that I never thought I would live to see this day, well… I was partially right. Our event today could be as much of a séance as it is a commencement. But my dead or undead or living heart swells with pride for you anyway, on this day. What an amazing class Vanderbilt is letting go, what enormous and varied talent. Today we say good-bye to Chantelle Anderson and Ashley McElhiney, two of the best cagers ever to play at Vanderbilt, who through their teamwork with one another inspired their whole team. To-day we say good-bye: to Jay Prather, editor-in-chief of Orbis; to Christine Yantis, who played a magnificently jaded Sally Bowles in Vanderbilt Off-Broadway’s production of Cabaret; to Phil O’Hara, who finishes his PhD in Religion with a significant and excellent dissertation on the economics of the Kingdom in the Gospel of Mark after strokes and paralysis forced him to have to relearn how to write, and to speak, and to focus his eyes. We let go of them, of all of you, just as they, and you, release a grip from us. The Jewish mystic Nachman of Bratzlav said that the most important imperative for any individual is to give up what she is for what she might become. As you leave Vanderbilt, you are leaving behind a host of things: maybe a place to live that although it appeared cramped at the time now seems quite dear to you; a definite routine; a well-worn route about campus; a set of friends and identifications; a meal plan; complaining about the meal plan. But the shift from being a college student to not being a college student is even more than an exchange of trappings and surroundings and accessories for other trappings and surroundings and accessories. It can feel much deeper than that. You can feel yourself turning in an old identity, a whole identity, as though you were turning your bowling shoes or roller skates back in to the rental desk, and with not a lot more ceremony. But when you go to fetch your regular shoes out of the cubbyhole, you find someone has stolen them. Graduation can feel like this. What are you going to wear home? Who are you, now? A certain stocking-footed feeling pervades your consciousness. Nachman calls this moment of feeling the surrendering of “what is within.” You have to do it, whether you like it or not, and most of us do not. “What is within” is whatever is old and familiar that comforts you, and continues to comfort you, even if it ceased to serve you a long time ago. It is your old shoes. Suddenly, your life as a student can seem very sweet and easeful. Even if just four months ago you were groaning and struggling with the most acute throes of “senior-itis”, the certainty of that life can allure you in retrospect with its simplicity and safety. Even if you have thought every next hour of class an excruciating ordeal, and wondered, “How could I ever have endured sitting here, listening to these people ramble on and on?”, suddenly you would like nothing more than to put up with all those people one last time. But we are called upon to surrender our old habits if we ever want to reach for what is beyond. And you can only reach for that which is beyond you if you are willing to take a leap into the abyss, if you are willing to walk out onto the curb in your stocking feet. You have to go forth. You have to find the walk that is your walk. You have to go to the new self who awaits you as Abram did when he walked into the desert at G-d’s “Lech lecha,” and became Abraham; as Prince Siddhartha did when he realized that all his young life he had been shielded from the truth, and left his protected palace, everything he owned, and went to meditate beneath a tree to become Buddha; as Muhammed did when he kept solitary vigil night after night in the Cave of Hira, trusting that a revelation would come to him; as Jesus’s apostles did when their teacher told them to travel with neither bag nor belt, with nothing to which they could cling; as the Mormons who founded my tradition did when they walked out into the desert, walked out through what they saw as an emptiness, to a land that was waiting for them. You always have to leave something behind. As you may have heard by now, I am from Vernal, Utah, home of Dinosaur National Park and a Tastee-Freez, where the hippest characters in town have been extinct seventy million years. I often smile at the fact that I was eighteen before I met anyone who was not Mormon, or Republican, or a dinosaur. But I needed to leave behind what was familiar to me, in order to meet all the remarkable people I now know who are neither Mormon, nor Republican, nor dinosaurid. I needed to get lost a little, in a completely unfamiliar world, to find out what I was that was not all those things. That the world into which you re-emerge holds an eerie similarity to the world as you left it four years ago may seem to offer some comfort. In 1999, when the undergraduates started school at Vanderbilt: Buffy had just graduated from high school, now she is set to graduate the series; people were reading the third Harry Potter book and now they are waiting for the fifth; you had spent the summer thrilling to The Matrix and now you find that your college career has been bookended by Matrices; in 1999 you wondered, “What is this ‘Google’?” and by now I am sure Google has helped you out of many a stuck spot; The West Wing premiered, and Jed Bartlett is still President; Three Kings capitalized on our memory of the first Gulf War, and now we have a second to wonder how we will remember. How much is the same, how much was set into motion. And how much looks the same, although
you know in your heart of hearts that it is not the same, not at all, and that the comfort you might take from its apparent familiarity is only an illusion. Ladies and gentlemen, this has been a difficult speech to compose, because in the weeks leading up to this auspicious day, our news was changing every hour, and in truth I did not know into what sort of world I would be delivering this speech. Finally I had to write it. An urgency with which I know you are all-too familiar, from writing papers at the last minute, so after trolling around on Google for a while, growing more and more desperate, I realized that what I was feeling resembled to a small degree what you would be feeling. For how does one write a speech to be delivered into the world, if one is uncertain how that world will look? And how do you plan for a future, when that future could look like anything, when a cocksure overconfidence can be so easily foiled? What am I, when what I think I am can change so easily from one moment to the next? Where am I, when the world in which I live can seem to change in a matter of hours or months into one fraught with war and terror? An uneasy feeling arises when you realize that no one can glibly answer these questions for you. These are the moments that force you forth on your own. They are not moments of conversation, but moments of announcement, in which you have to decide your own answer, in which you have to find your own way. There is a wonderful Sanskrit word that makes that announcement. The word is “Jai!” So that all of you in the audience can picture the word, it is spelled in its transliteration J-A-I. “Jai” usually appears in prayers and devotions to mean something like “Hail!” or “Hallelujah!” A friend of mine once told me that in addition to that use, “jai” is what you say when there is nothing else to say. For instance, when you see a glorious sunset and the sunset expands across the whole sky and across your heart, and the sunset has such colors in it that you think no-one on this planet has ever seen those colors, because surely there is no way our sun’s light can hold those colors, and if you started talking at that moment a thousand years would go by before you were able to describe that sunset, you just say, “Jai”, for that is what you say when all other words fail you. And conversely, when you lose your job, and then all of a sudden your car breaks down, and it is going to take nine-hundred dollars to fix, which you simply do not have, and your student loans are due (which is going to start coming true sooner than you think) — what else could you possibly say? When you are watching a war on television and you are trying to figure out how you feel about it, because you hear so many reports about it that are conflicting, and you know there is suffering and you are trying to figure out if it is good, and all of the people you go to for counsel tell you they are no wiser than you are, you say, “Jai.” You hit the bottom and you see what you can come up with, what is left in your hands. You might be in a place right now that makes you feel that way. For all else has been stripped away, and the world once so familiar to you has changed so utterly, and all that you have left is the core of your being, what is really you, that is not a car, or a job, or words, or a world that is consistent, or a schedule, or a student number. So why, in these moments, would you ever say something that amounts to a praise? Because in that spot of frustrating wildness is an opening for grace, the same as the sunset, an opening for going forth, with what you have left, with what is really you, with what is really dear to you. The world is not as it was when you started college. Fortunes change. The world’s fortunes change, and your fortunes will change. They will go up, and they will go down, and life is long. So you are better off figuring out who you are now, at your core. “Jai” is in that moment of going forth into that weird world, of leaving your tent or your palace or your teacher or your cave or your dormitory or the land of the dinosaurs in Vernal – it is that moment of going forth into the world, and into yourself, in which you have to ask, “What else do I have if I do not have myself, and the wisdom in my mind?” “What else do I have if I do not have a heart that has learned enough to be compassionate?” “What else do I have if I do not have my humanity?” You realize that what your fortune is does not matter. When all else falls away, your core purpose is something that will remain, that will bear you up through every wild moment. Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest gift of an education is that it expands the sympathies of our imaginations so that we are able to know that each being in the world has a private heart as well. In this expansion, we become more able to see the price of violence. What you are at your core, your education – what you have made of yourself and what it has made of you, and your compassion, and your wisdom, your heart and hand and mind — all of these things are what is truly you, and they enable you to work in every capacity, for the mending of our rent world, for its healing and repair. You must sew up the tear that humans have made in the universe through their violence to each other on this earth. That skill is the core of your being. This art is the only thing worth having. The caring that you are capable of, that caring that is demonstrated by all of the people who love you most in the world who came out to see you walk your walk to-day – that caring can be extended to everyone. We live in a round world. Do not close your heart to anyone, because, like you, they all have their own moments of “jai.” Please convert the knowledge that you have learned so dearly here into wisdom. Use it in service to beings everywhere to transform the world, through your best work as scientists, as healers, as theologians, as writers, as activists. Let your whole life bring forth what you have learned, what is your core, until humans on earth can truly say that they know and understand one another. And in that caring, and in that work and service, when all that you have learned here culminates in your brilliant minds and compassionate hearts, I wish that G-d speed you, in your stocking feet.