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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Graduation-Goer

Chalk up another year. On May 2nd and 3rd I attended the Baccalaureate and Graduation Ceremonies, respectively, of Westmont College. If I tried to add up the amount of graduation and promotion events that I have attended for all the jr highers, high schoolers and college students I have known and loved since 1984.... let's just say it would be a large number.

Truth be told, I am not usually excited as I leave the house for one of these things. I make sure I've loaded up enough on sunscreen, water and snacks to get me through it. Thankfully, I have also learned that I can ask a family to save me a seat rather than head out early in order to save one for myself. I try to arrive right as the graduates are heading in, so I can give a quick hug, a big smile, and a whoop whoop to as many of them as I can. Then I scramble up to my saved seat, and settle in for an utterly predictable program.

Why do I put myself through it? I mean, really, I cannot recall a memorable speech by a famous dignitary, or a mind-blowing piece of advice that has been given. There are usually some stumbles in the program -- microphones don't work, someone trips, or music doesn't work out... So it is clear that we do not attend these things because of the quality of the performance.

Nevertheless, it's a significant marker.  They have accomplished something, and that feels good. I enjoy seeing the giddiness of the graduates. They really have no idea what awaits them, but I don't worry about that. I think they should enjoy the fact that they are finished, and get to celebrate it publicly.

I come to you humbly though, in needing to admit that despite my long history of attending these sorts of things, I actually came away with a revelation this time. I realized that graduation is as much for me as it is for them. Huh?

Many years I had a student who was in a search for the meaning of life. He had grown up in a Christian home, with parents who were robust faith followers, actively involved both in their church and interestingly, in national conversations about faith. This student was already rather cynical. He did not want to come to youth group, but we had a pleasant friendship and he was fine with meeting every other week or so for lunch and conversation. At one point, he had to read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. He told me that the book's plot centered about an existential search in some ways similar to his own, so I told him I would read the book so that we could talk about it.

As it says in the Wikipedia description of the novel, "He [main character, Binx Bolling] day-dreams constantly, has trouble engaging in lasting relationships and finds more meaning and immediacy in movies and books than in his own routine life.... The loose plot of the novel follows The Moviegoer himself, Binx Bolling, in desperate need of spiritual redemption." 

I find a key quote from the book so compelling: "What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life."

Indeed. Aren't we all sunk in the "everydayness" of life? I want to pretend I live life every day to the fullest, and seek after purity and meaning in all that I do. But if I'm honest, I struggle as I string together day chock full of work and errands and house-cleaning and bills and a deep need to sleep. Somewhere in there I try to earnestly pursue a life of spiritual discipline. But with only limited success.

Before I sound too existential and bleak, I want to get to my point: I discovered last weekend that yet another graduation ceremony was a good wake-up call for me personally. It forced me to stop, reflect, and be reminded of what I am about. Like the Moviegoer, I am on a search. I heard some heartfelt speeches that expressed real hopes and dreams, and I chose to use this opportunity to hear all the sentiments shared in the context of how my own life has unfolded. I stopped to recall how I felt at 22, and what I feel and experience now at 53.

I also paused to consider how I have been spending my life, having poured into many students, some of whom were graduating that day. Some of them I had known literally since birth, and others I had met with weekly in Bible study and substantive conversation for years. Was it worth it? Had I used my time well? Yes. I shuffled through mental pictures of memories and conversations and how much these young adults had grown up. Which prompted me to rejoice and be grateful for the privilege of walking with them for awhile.

Years ago I discerned that funerals are actually for those who are left behind, not the one being memorialized. Funerals provide closure, a time to remember, a time to weep in order to start putting the pieces of life back together without that person, for better or worse. I came to see this past weekend that graduations function in much the same way. True, these events are certainly for those being celebrated, unlike a funeral, since the graduates are still very much alive. But these ceremonies are also for those watching: the parents and relatives who are blinking away the tears, stunned at the realization that it all happened way. too. fast. For the professors who toil away, year after year, wondering if what they are doing is worth it and getting a brief blast of joy in getting to share this beautiful moment with their students, shedding the binary relationship of instructor and student, instead getting to be united with them in celebration. And for the mentors, who invested and encouraged and prayed and laughed and pushed. At graduation we get a chance to say, "There, I've done all that I could. I may be done, or not. But I will stop and look backwards, recalling God's faithful and guiding hand and direction." Importantly, this keeps me going.

So I am a Graduation-Goer, who benefits from being reminded that we are all searching, and that periodically, we need to stop and see how that search is going.

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