Antioch University New England Commencement Address 2015

“On Keeping the Sabbath”

by Stephen J. Reno
Chancellor Emeritus, University System of New Hampshire
Executive Director, Leadership New Hampshire

President Jones, Chancellor Nudelman, Chairman MacVeagh, Trustees, Faculty, Staff, and especially, Graduates and your families: Thank you for inviting me to share this happy day with you. I am honored to be here, but even more so, I am proud of you for what you have accomplished and what this day represents for you. Please accept my heartfelt congratulations!

By inviting me, President Jones may well be giving rise to a new cliché, namely, that old chancellors never die; they just become commencement speakers.

In my few minutes here with you, however, I’d like to depart a little from the graduation speech convention by saying that my message is not that you go out and do something, but that you also go out and do nothing. To suggest such a thing in Horace Mann’s own university – a place where his admonition is emblazoned on the wall of the lobby “Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for mankind” — might, at first hearing, sound like heresy. But let me explain.

On Christmas Day 1950 – the year Santa brought me my long-hoped-for bicycle, it poured rain relentlessly. I was truly disappointed because the weather prevented my taking the new bike out for a ride. In fact, it continued to rain for the next two days: something very uncharacteristic for so-called “sunny” California. So I turned instead to some of my other Christmas presents, one of which was a little Chinese finger puzzle that was in my stocking. The puzzle itself was a small, woven fabric tube, into each end of which I inserted my index finger. They went in easily enough, of course, but when I tried to pull them out, the fabric tube contracted and held my fingers tightly. My Dad explained – but did not show me – that to extricate my fingers, I needed first to push them in further and then slowly pull them out. I suppose that was my first truly counterintuitive insight. His explanation just didn’t make sense till I actually tried it. Then it was astonishingly easy.

In the many years since then, the elementary insight of that Christmas morning has been brought to my mind countless times over. In fact, this very speech is an example of its impact on me. I set aside a day to write it and then, early on the appointed day, sat in front of a blank computer screen and waited….and waited….and waited. I left the computer and took a walk. As I left the house, my wife, Kit, said, “I thought you were up working on your Antioch speech. “ Where are you going?” “To work on my Antioch speech, I replied.” And off I went.

Truth is, it took about three miles of walking, smelling the spring air, admiring the newly-budding trees, and listening to the birds, and not thinking about this talk that the idea for it came to me. Back at the computer, the words came forth easily. I simply needed some “down time.”

What’s the lesson in all this? For me, an old professor of world religions, it is the importance of stepping away from a task in order ultimately to come back to it with a different perspective. Said another way: the value of emptiness.

As I look out at you graduates, I strongly suspect most of you could be described as “multitaskers.” If one thinks about it, you can’t pursue a graduate degree or certificate, keep a full-time or part-time job, be a spouse or partner, raise children or take care of elderly parents, coach a team, volunteer for a charity, or serve in the Guard or Reserve, without being a multitasker. Moreover, I expect most of you have at least two email accounts, belong to Facebook, Linkedin, or Twitter, have a cell ‘phone, and can move effortlessly among them simultaneously.

So you probably wear the “multitasker” badge with justifiable pride. I hope you do because your ability to juggle so many different, and often competing, obligations is a testament to your determination and stamina. But too much of it can bring risks too.

You may have read last week about research published in the journal Science that reported results of a French study of individuals engaged in multitasking. A University of Wisconsin team found similar results, namely, that the brain can handle two simultaneous activities, but that when a third is added, efficiency drops dramatically, and with four or more, it drops even further and the brain gets tired and muddled.

Still, we Americans set high value on multitasking. Read carefully next time, a newspaper or magazine profile of a high achiever. Regardless of their profession, they’ll be described as a person who gets up before dawn, goes to bed after midnight, jogs ten miles a day, reads six newspapers, monitors seven blogs, flies 200,000-plus miles per year, is a soccer mum or dad, executes massive business deals daily, and never takes a day off. These are our heroes: truly productive and successful role models.

A few years ago, the then-president of Harvard, Neil Rudenstein, (one of these types) overslept one morning in the middle of a billion-dollar capital fundraising campaign. He’d been both overseeing the University while hitting the road raising millions of dollars per day. His oversleeping alarmed the Harvard community. Their “Man of Steel” suddenly seemed less so.[1] Truth was, he was simply exhausted. After going through all of the usual medical examinations and evaluations, President Rudenstein took time off, went on a vacation, walked on beaches, read poetry, listened to music, and just “veged out” as my daughter would say. After a short time, he came back and finished the campaign successfully.

Although our lives are very different from the president of Harvard’s, we can perhaps relate to it to some extent, for we, too, readily fill them up to the top and even over the top with things to do: sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice. And that’s not surprising, for we are all purposeful, self-initiated, high energy, and very committed folks, especially you who have chosen Antioch University with its challenge to identify the pressing needs of our world and work to address them.

So as you so rightly cherish this day, this celebration of hard work, multitasking, and undeniable achievement, please consider another insight drawn from the Chinese tradition. It is not the finger puzzle, ‘though it’s the same message. It is the familiar image of the yin and yang symbol, drawn from Taoism. The symbol is of a circle, divided, not with a straight line, but by a curved one. One side is light, the other dark. Yet within the dark, there is a small circle of light and vice versa. It represents the complementary principles of light and dark, male and female, active and passive: principles that are distinct from one another, yet containing something of the other in each. What most people familiar with the symbol do not know is that it is in constant rotation, so that one or the other of the two aspects is dominant. In other words, there is a rhythm to the relationship of these forces.

The message is this: In the unceasing rush of our daily lives, we run the risk of losing the rhythm between work and rest, between action and reflection. And lest you think I’m getting too theological, let me simply observe that the rhythm is one that is a fact of the natural order. As Wayne Muller puts it, the lesson of the vegetative world is that there is a time of new life and growth, and a time of dormancy when the powers coalesce. If the dormancy is prevented, the species will not produce and eventually will die.[2] For us, it may be that we lose our way, we get so immersed that we cannot, as they say, see the forest for the trees.

But all of this is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? You might be thinking, “If we’re going to be productive, to be successful, we have to keep at it; keep our eyes on the goal; keep our noses to the grindstone; work like dogs; and run the extra mile.” I’m not suggesting we don’t need to do these things. What I am proposing, however, is that we – you and I – each build some time into our days to pause, be still, and just see what happens.

Every religious tradition I am familiar with counsels one to do this. For some, such as Judaism, it’s enshrined in observance of the Sabbath, a day set aside each week when, in the words of one writer, “…we remember to celebrate what is beautiful and sacred; we light candles, sing songs, tell stories, eat, and nap. It is time to let our work, our lands, and our animals lie fallow, to be nourished and refreshed. Within this sanctuary (of time), we become available to the insights and blessings of deep mindfulness that arise only in stillness…In a complex and unstable world, if we do not rest, if we do not surrender to some kind of Sabbath, how can we find our way, how can we hear the voices that tell us the right thing to do?”[3]

In his current book, titled, The Road to Character, NY Times columnist, David Brooks, recommends we find that intersection where one’s deepest gladness meets the world’s greatest needs. To find that intersection, we need a little quiet time each day to reflect.

So this is my parting advice to you. As any good commencement speaker would do, I challenge you to go out from this place and work and make a difference: be good people, good citizens, good partners, friends, spouses, parents, colleagues, employees or employers. In short, take what you have learned and experienced here at Antioch and work for social justice. But unlike most commencement speakers, I also challenge you to set aside some bit of time each day to be still, quiet, and just see what happens. Think of it as your personal Sabbath. I am not suggesting you become self-centered, but that to be ultimately productive and satisfied, you need to center the self.

Have you ever considered why it is during the safety announcements on airplanes, the directive is to put your own oxygen mask on first? You can’t help others if you are incapacitated. Putting your mask on isn’t selfish. It’s just smart.

For my late mother-in-law, her personal Sabbath was a time alone each early morning before the rest of the family arose. She used to say, “The first hour is the rudder of the day.” That quiet time set the course for all her activities that followed.

Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime. If you recognize me, (not wearing these funny clothes) please feel free to ask, “Are you keeping your Sabbath?” If you do, I’ll be sure to ask the same of you.”

Best wishes to you all…and again, heartiest congratulations!

 

 

[1]               This story is recounted in Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath, New York, Bantam Books, 1999, pp. 3-4. His writings, and especially this essay, have given inspiration to this talk and have enlivened my own life and work.

[2]               Muller, op. cit., p. 7.

[3]               Ibid.

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