Saturday, May 26, 2012

Love as if Life Depended on It

The Commencement Address delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 26, 2012
at The Blue Ridge School, Saint George, Virginia

Members of the board, Mr. Darrin, Parents, Friends, Faculty, Underclassmen, and finally the class of 2012. . . Thank you for the honor of addressing you on this your commencement day. I'm truly moved, and touched. . . May I begin this morning with a brief prayer, join me if you will, let us pray.
Almighty, Loving, Father God,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show us the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Last night I emailed the entire school community a poem that I penned last year for commencement. I will close this morning with those carefully chosen words, so I know exactly where this message is heading, but I want to offer this speech as a preface to that concise piece of advice, if I could, because one line from that poem I think needs emphasis. I want that line to stand out when I read it later because it is the central focus and the climax of the poem. It is central to your lives as young men, heading out into the world, and also is central to everything that I know to be true about this our world: that line is, "Love as if your life depended on it," simply that, "Love as if your life depended on it."  In the poem I follow that line with "because it does more than you could ever know." I believe to my soul that it truly does, but first why. . .
Our world is difficult, and frustrating, and cruel. There will be times when you will dream about the chance to do a "walkabout" to erase a mistake you made, but in life there is no such thing. You will dream, too, that the phrase, "but that's not fair," actually holds water because it won't. You will dream about having opportunity period because that kind of set aside time to get your work done, would be like gold, but it doesn't exist. Believe me, I know, I have two kids under the age of two. . . I dream of having an opportunity period. And all of that is if you actually get everything you want: a good job, a wife, a family, success. . . but it's not a new phenomenon. Men have struggled throughout history. Whitman writes. . .
O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;  
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who  more faithless?)  
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;  
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;         
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;  
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?   
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
You will and you must contribute a verse; it is a simple as that. What will your verse be is the question. Shakespeare asked it a different way, when he wrote "To be or not to be," that is his question, asking "who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life?"
I suggest to you this morning that the answer to both, the answer to solving the ills of our world, and the answer to the question of what makes life itself worth living, even fraught with those very ills, is the same thing, and that is love.
I've started every class that I've taught here at Blue Ridge the same way. Every September, when most teachers are going through the syllabus, we start with our first vocabulary word. Those of you who had me last year for English, do you remember it? I ask my students to do their best, and write a definition of what "Love" is, and I tell them that their definition must define love completely, all aspects included in their complete definition. After saying they can't use the dictionary, I always get the same kind of thing, "Of or pertaining to the emotion of great care for another person." Anytime  you hear "of or pertaining to" you know that you've already lost. As Big Daddy said in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, "if you gotta use words like that to describe something its 90 proof bull and I'm not buying any." So I hand it back, and they try again, and they go a little deeper, but they always seem to be missing something. They'll include love for a woman, but will leave out the kind of love they have for sports, or family, or their dog, or they'll talk about bliss, but not pain, and we all know that love includes both.
So the next thing we do, to try to spur our thoughts on, is try to come up with phrases that have love in them. . . like Puppy Love, or Young love, or Lost in Love, or Love/Hate Relationship, or What's Love Got to Do With It?, or Love Bites, love bleeds. .. It's bringing me to my knees. . .  Sorry I guess singing Def Leppard shows my age. This exercise always expands the student definitions a bit. Usually a phrase like "Tough Love" hadn't been thought of yet. So after that I have them try again, and now they are writing full paragraphs, trying to list as many aspects as possible. . . but then there is always one in the class ,who writes something like love is a roller coaster. .. and that's when I know I've got 'em. Yes, I celebrate inside, poetry and figurative language are needed to get at an idea like love. . . and now on the first day of class I've got little poets, and class can begin.
Even though I taught them that love is indefinable, I have a working definition that I use, so here goes. This is what I think Love means: Love is "giving of your complete self to and for something that is not you, holding nothing back, but giving of you to else, all of you. . . every single bit, including any thought for what you will get back in return." I think that encapsulates it: the joy, the pain, the suffering, the beauty, the uncertainty, the nausea, the tears, the laughter, the memories, the moments, the fear, the lack of control, the dedication to a sport, every dream ever dreamed, every poem ever written, every love song ever sung, every movie, every story,  the heart break, the risk, the sacrifice, the nervousness, the importance, sex, parenthood, the only hope for our world, and, to be honest, life itself. Can you give all of yourself for something else? Have any of you risked that much? Probably not yet. I stand here this morning struggling with it myself. It is the most difficult thing that a human can do, but I can think of no nobler aspect of life.
What makes it so difficult? You may disagree. . . you may be thinking to yourself. Mr. Atkinson, talk about 90 proof bull. I've loved, and it is not that hard. But have you given of your complete self? Do you even know yet what your complete self is? That is part of the difficulty. To truly love, you must know who you are because how can you give all, if you don't know what all is? So find out who you are. . . The world needs you to, because the world needs you to love. Each one of you has a self that is completely unique to you, and the world needs you to give it. No one else can give the gift of you, and the world needs all of us, so begin your search for yourself. Build it up, but build it up to give it.
Many of you will have that chance in college. You will have the opportunity to find out who you are. Do so, search, seek, and be true. One of the biggest problems that men face in this world is remaining true to that self because there are many defining voices in this world − voices that will try to put you in a confined box and trap you in a group, by race, by political affiliation, by your job, by income, by where you are from. We actually add another one to you today.
You are now Blue Ridge Graduates.  It will forever be a part of who you are, but it must remain exactly that, a part. There is so much more that you will welcome under the umbrella of you, as your world expands. Let it continue to expand. There is nothing more valuable to give than a self that is continuing to expand. Think of the possibilities that makes for love. They are infinite, which is good because our world has seemingly infinite problems: political polarization, failing economic systems, war, hatred, violence, terrorism, misguided protest movements, the constant threat of total annihilation. . . Yes what the world needs now is love, sweet love, and that means that you, each of you must be willing to give love. You will carry the torch of humanity into the future. Will yours be the generation that finally figures it all out? We can hope. We can have faith because we can believe in the power and the existence of love. Be a part of that truth.
I hope you are starting to realize something about love, in what I've been saying. Love is like life. It's hard; it takes your all; it's filled with risk, and when lived right, when loved right, it's actually lived. It leaves a growing, glowing, glorious trail of life behind it. We started with Whitman "That you are here—that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse." Life exists, love exists, and identity. You are unique manifestation of life, created by love, to give love. It seems so simple. May it be so.
Now, having given the preface, my poem:

For the 2012 Graduates of Blue Ridge School

To commence, to start, initiate;
To gather together and begin,
So here we are together one last time
And off you go, at the outset of a journey,
Having completed the twelve year tutorial,
Embark, with guided steps.
Good luck, bon voyage, congratulations,
All are certainly in order.
You’ve earned this day,
The culmination of past days,
The first of future days.
Burst free and fly, it’s you now,
Your choices, your plans, your work,
Your future, your life,
And we who’ve played a part,
Go with you forever,
Just as you stay with us forever,
For bonds made in relationship don’t break,
Impact is reciprocal when it’s honest,
Teaching is learning when it’s true,
The intersections of life are life,
Thank you for what you brought,
And I hope you can use what I gave,
Then as your path winds on,
May the way build you as the past has done,
And know that there is only one instance of you,
One original creation,
One glorious blessed uniqueness,
That has much to offer a world in need.
Know yourself, be yourself, always,
One unified searching soul.
Encounter each challenge as it comes.
Remember that suffering strengthens,
That pain deepens your soul,
So instead of avoiding, attack.
Attack life and live.
Taste each breath you take.
Feel each tear you shed.
Treasure each time you laugh.
And love as if your life depended on it
Because it does more than you ever could know.
I can give no other advice
On this your commencement
Than to stop for only a second,
Smile, take a breath, and go. . .