My remarks to the graduates at this morning’s convocation of the BYU College of Humanities

 

Inside BYU’s Marriott Center, where today’s convocation was held. The crowd wasn’t quite so large, though, and I wasn’t dressed in shorts.

 

It’s a privilege to speak to you this morning—even wearing what Hugh Nibley, during a prayer at BYU’s 1960 graduation ceremonies, famously called “the black robes of a false priesthood.”

 

Graduates, I congratulate you on your achievement.  Far more of us are going to college today than in earlier generations, but, even so, it was only in March of 2011 that, for the first time, the percentage of Americans over twenty-five with bachelors degrees exceeded thirty percent.  Congratulations, too, to supportive parents and families.  Most of our students wouldn’t succeed without your help.

 

For years, I puzzled over a particular behavior that I noticed in undergraduate students:

 

Once in a while, I’ve been obliged to cancel a class.  Sometimes I could reschedule it, or find a substitute.  But sometimes I couldn’t.  And, when I couldn’t, they were visibly delighted.

 

But, I thought to myself, you guys have paid for this!  Consider an analogy:  You’ve just handed six bucks over for a mega-double cheese and bacon burger supreme.  The fast food worker behind the counter deposits your money in the cash register and then coolly informs you that he’s out of burgers.  Would you be happy?  Yet, here, you’ve paid to enroll in classes, and, though you get no refund, you’re pleased if they’re cancelled.

 

The mystery was solved for me, though, when I finally recognized that what many students saw themselves as paying for was an eventual degree, a credential—and that the payment took two forms: tuition, yes, but also the time and effort of taking classes.  Thus, when a class was cancelled, they’d just received a price discount!

 

The bad news today, though, is that there’s still one last droning professorial lecture between you and your diploma.  Mine.  (You should know that my favorite definition of the word professor is “Someone who talks in other people’s sleep.”)

 

We on the faculty seldom go into academia for the lavish salaries and the glamorous lifestyle.  Most of us are passionate about our subjects, and we (usually) enjoy teaching.  So I’m delighted to have one last crack at you—and you, if you want your diplomas, have to just sit there and endure it.

 

I won’t take long.  And I frankly admit that choosing a focus for brief remarks is much harder than writing a nice, long, rambling high council talk.  But, as I’ve thought and, yes, prayed about what I should say here, one theme has impressed itself powerfully (and surprisingly) upon my mind.  If you listen, you’ll soon be able to detect what it is.

 

Look around you.

 

It’s very likely that you know several of the people you can see.  You’ve been in classes with them.  You may have served in Church callings with them, perhaps even in the same mission.

 

Some of them are good friends.  They’ve been so vivid a part of your years here that you can’t imagine these friendships ever ending.

 

Yet, in most cases, even these relationships will fade away.

 

You doubt it.  You may be inwardly protesting right now that yours will be different.  But they will.  You’ll move apart geographically.  You’ll take jobs in different communities, different firms, different states, perhaps different countries.  You’ll be busy with career demands, children, callings.

 

Except for those rare cases where chance intervenes to save them—perhaps you and your best friend will end up living in the same small New England ward; perhaps you’ll both be drafted by the same NBA franchise—your undergraduate friendships will weaken and die unless you’re determined to keep them alive.

 

Contacts with your old college friends will become rarer and rarer, and then, one day, you’ll realize with a start that you haven’t heard from Lauren or Jake for years.  And you’ll experience a passing twinge of wistful regret, but then you’ll get back to more pressing things.

 

This is natural.  Life moves on.  You’ll make new friends, who will enrich your world.  But most of the old friends will fade into memories, and, if you’re lucky, into old, seldom-looked-at photographs.  Someday, you’ll even laugh at the hairstyles, the glasses, and the clothing they used to wear, and at their gawkish, skinny youthfulness, just as you’ve sometimes laughed at the ridiculous way your parents looked when they were young.  And then you’ll realize, with a shock, that you too—impossible as it once seemed—have grown old, and uncool.

 

But that’s another topic.  My point here is that relationships need refreshing, effort, sheer contact, to survive.  Most inevitably won’t.

 

Now, the loss of undergraduate relationships won’t prove fatal.  Sometimes poignant, perhaps, but not lethal.  Ideally, you’ll nurture and retain a few—perhaps even with members of the faculty to whom you’ve felt particularly close.  (I hope you’ve had one or more of those; your teachers would appreciate hearing from you.)

 

Other relationships, though, are absolutely vital.  They’re at the heart of what it means to be human—and, in some cases, they’re at the center of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint.

 

Here, now, is where my remarks become earnestly serious.  This is Brigham Young University, after all:  If I can’t appropriately lecture you today on the history of Islamic civilization, I’m going to preach to you.

 

On the issue of relationships, it’s long seemed to me that Buddhism and Christianity—certainly the Mormon form of Christianity—are polar opposites, at least in their respective theories.  (At this point, I ask the indulgence of those who are actual experts on Buddhism.  I’m an Islamicist, not a Buddhologist—I don’t even play one on TV—and my summary of Buddhist doctrine on this may well be a crude caricature.  But I’m really not talking, especially, about Buddhism; I’m using it, and perhaps abusing it, to make a quite unrelated point.)

 

The Buddha, appalled by the suffering that he encountered when, as a young prince, he emerged from his sheltered palace life in order to see the world, eventually sought and attained enlightenment.  Then he returned to society in order to teach his disciples the path of “non-attachment.”  Attachment to people and things is, in the Buddhist view, the origin of suffering; because of our attachments, we suffer from such things as fear, desire, hatred, greed, and lust.  If we achieve non-attachment, our suffering ceases.

 

Christianity’s doctrine, however, is very different.  Please understand that I’m not claiming that Christians are kinder or more charitable than Buddhists.  That hasn’t been my experience, and I don’t believe it to be true.  I’m trying to get at a doctrine, a principle, one that is directly relevant to my remarks this morning.

 

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[1]

 

“A man filled with the love of God,” taught Joseph Smith, “is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious [anxious!] to bless the whole human race.”[2]

 

Christianity urges us not to contract our attachments, but to expand them.  Not to disentangle ourselves from relationships, but to multiply and deepen them.  Not to avoid suffering at all costs, but to endure it well in the cause of serving God and humanity.

 

The perfect symbol of this is the Son of God himself, who, as the Book of Mormon teaches us, condescended—in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the word means to voluntarily surrender one’s high status in order to serve, as a king might come down from his throne to dwell among his subjects—he condescended to come to earth and suffer on our behalf.

 

And Mormonism adds to that the remarkable doctrine that the God of heaven himself lives, not in cold autocratic isolation, like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” but in family.  He is our father.  And serving others isn’t merely a test to be passed and then left behind, but, even for God, it’s his reason for being, his raison d’etre.  “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”[3]  So involved is the God of Mormonism with his children that—to the astonishment of Enoch—he’s pained at their suffering, and weeps.  It isn’t only the mortal Jesus who weeps at our unhappiness.

 

Relationships bring us our greatest joys, but, as Buddhism recognizes, they also make us vulnerable to pain and sorrow.  A rock feels no pain.  An island never cries.  But no man is an island, and we don’t aspire to be rocks.

 

I’ve invited you to maintain at least a relationship or two from your college years, but I’ve warned you that doing so will require an investment of time and effort.

 

That’s true of all relationships—with your parents, to whom, in most cases, you owe a great debt for your being here today; with your extended family; with a spouse.

 

“Marriage,” said Martin Luther—and I would say “family”— “is a far better school for character than any monastery.”  (And Luther knew both monasteries and, eventually, marriage at first hand.)  He was convinced that God uses the challenges of daily family life to sanctify us.  By interacting with others, our rough edges can be made smooth.  By being obliged to deal caringly with others who differ from us, who may be needy just when we feel we have little to give, whom we might or might not have chosen as friends, who might sometimes disappoint us, we can become much bigger and better than we would otherwise be.

 

My wife and I lived in Cairo for four years.  We loved it, but it can be draining.  Traffic, smog, cultural challenges, the sheer mass of a vast and overcrowded city—sometimes I just wanted quiet.  Peace.

 

Several times, with my friend Kent Brown, I was privileged to visit the ancient monasteries of the Egyptian deserts.  And, for the first time, I could actually understand the appeal of monasticism.  Serene contemplation is a lot more attractive when the alternative is traffic jams, honking, and automotive exhaust.

 

But that doesn’t seem to be what the Lord wants.  He didn’t put his chosen people in a fertile utopian paradise.  He put Israel in Palestine, right between the perpetually warring empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, who constantly ran over them to get at each other, in a place where the Israelites would have to work hard to clear the rocks and reap food to eat.

 

“Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,” said Goethe, “Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.”  “Talent is cultivated in stillness, but character in the currents of life.”[4]

 

In this college, perhaps more than others, you’ve spent a lot of your time in solitude, curled up with very good books.  Far be it from me to denigrate such solitary encounters with great thoughts.  On the contrary, I hope you’ll devote time to such pursuits for the rest of your lives.  Read.  Reflect.  Think.  It’s said that 42% of college graduates will never read another book after graduation.  Please don’t be among them.  80% of Americans haven’t read a book within the past year.  70% of adults haven’t been in a bookstore in the past five years.

 

But, as one of Shakespeare’s lesser characters puts it, “Society . . . is the happiness of life”[5]

 

Don’t sacrifice your most important personal relationships for status, career, a graduate degree, or advancement at work.  Nor even for reading.  Don’t let your relationship with a spouse wither away even because of children.  Cultivate your relationships.  Nurture them.  Very few who lose the relationships they most value set out, consciously, to destroy them.  They simply allow them to fade away under the pressure of other interests and commitments.

 

In my field—as, I expect, in others—I’ve noticed over the years that many of those who’ve reached the pinnacle have done so at enormous cost.  They have no lives.  Their marriages have collapsed.  They have no relationships with their children, if they have any children at all.  And, at the end, many of them aren’t sure it was worth it.  As the saying goes, very few people, at the ends of their lives, wish they’d spent more time at the office.  They lament lost relationships.

 

Resolve today that that won’t be you.

 

Once, during my mission in Switzerland, a counselor in the mission presidency spoke in the small branch to which I was assigned.   He told us that he was going to share a principle with us, one single simple rule, that would guarantee our never going inactive in the Church.  I was excited to hear it.

 

“Never miss your meetings,” he said.  I was deeply disappointed.  “Never miss your meetings”?  Well of course you wouldn’t go inactive if you never missed church meetings.  By definition.  A tautology.  Rather like saying “Here’s the secret to remaining a bachelor:  Don’t get married!”

 

But I’ve come to appreciate the rule a bit better with the passage of time.  The fact is that many people don’t plan to go inactive.  They just do.  They drift away.  They skip a week.  And then it’s easier to skip the next week.  And eventually, if they’ve skipped enough, they feel a bit embarrassed about coming back.  Won’t people want to know where they’ve been?  And, ultimately, they simply forget what it was like, what they felt, when they were active—and they’re gone.

 

The relevance of this simple insight to my overall theme of relationships is obvious:  In this fallen world, things like plants and friendships and marriages and faith tend to die if not cultivated.

 

Be there.  And not just via Facebook and tweets.

 

But I do want to speak about your relationship with God, as well.  Because it, too, is a personal relationship, one that follows similar rules:  If it isn’t nourished, it will die.  Faith isn’t merely agreement with a list of propositions.  Some claims and propositions are involved, of course, but the Greek word that’s usually translated as “faith,” pistis, means, even more fundamentally, “trust.”  “Confidence” in a person.  And such confidence, with God as with anybody else, is built up through experience, in relationships.

 

I’ve said nothing earth-shatteringly new here.  Probably nothing that you haven’t heard a thousand times before.  I recognize that.  But sometimes simple things are the most important things.  And I want you to remember this one.

 

Mormonism is very much about relationships.  It’s also about remembering.  The Book of Mormon constantly emphasizes the importance of remembering.  We renew covenants every week in an ordinance that wants us to remember.  But other traditions, too, recognize the importance of memory.  The Qur’an, for example—I had to get Islam and Arabic into this talk somehow—consistently contrasts the dhakirun (those who remember, who are mindful, and are, therefore, good) with the wicked, who are ghafilun (“heedless,” “neglectful”).

 

My plea to you, therefore, is to be mindful.  Choose the most important things.  And then don’t allow yourselves to drift.  Never neglect the people who are most important to you simply because you think they’ll always be there.  Hold on to, nourish, strengthen, the best of all good things: relationships with those you love, and with those who love you and make you better.  And please, count the Lord among them.

 



[1] Matthew 22:36-40.

[2] History of the Church 4:227.

[3] Moses 1:39.

[4] Leonora 1.2 Torquato Tasso

[5] Love’s Labours Lost.

 

 

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  • RaymondSwenson

    Amen.

  • Ray Agostini

    Thank you, Dan. You’re now forgiven for all the puppies you massacred in cold blood in the dark of night. :)

    On a more serious note, I learned a lot from this. Now I need to take some time to “ponder” a bit more.

    • DanielPeterson

      It’s hard work faking decency and basic humanity. Fortunately, I seem to have most of the people who actually know me reasonably well snowed on the matter. It’s a tiny handful of my internet critics who’ve never actually met me who’ve managed to pierce through my disguise and recognized the volcanic rage and all-consuming vengeance-driven hatred that are at my very core.

      • Mark Matheson

        As a recent discoverer of this column I look forward to seeing you disclose your “core” in unique and insightful ways. From what I have sporadically read from you over the last few years, you seem to be a pleasant mix of genius, humor and a rare dose of academic humility. I look forward to reading your posts more regularly.

  • David R. Shorten

    Well said, well done.

    I am concerned that people who have been to a college sufficient time to earn, or be awarded a degree (there may be a difference here) do not continue to read.

    How empty a life is without books, magazines, newspapers with opinion columns to read and ponder upon.


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