Friday, May 10, 2013

A Commencement Lesson

In a Sewanee commencement weekend conversation this afternoon with Jon Meacham, New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke about hearing the VJ Day "Command Performance" program on NPR as he drove home one evening. (This part of the conversation begins at about 34:50.)

He described host Bing Crosby's opening comments in much the same way he did when he wrote an Op-Ed on September 15, 2009: "'All anybody can do is thank God it's over. Today our deep down feeling is one of humility.'" Then he mentioned actor Burgess Meredith, who quoted war correspondent Ernie Pyle: "We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things -- because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature's material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud."

Upon arriving at home, Brooks watched football, and when a defensive player prevented the wide receiver from making much progress with the ball, the player "does what all professional athletes do at moments of supreme personal achievement: he does this dance in honor of himself."

It occurred to Brooks that he had "seen a bigger self-puffing dance after a two-yard gain than I'd heard after winning World War II." He went on to add, "It symbolized to me . . . the shift from a culture of self-effacement -- that I'm no better than anyone else but nobody's better than me to a culture of self-expression. And this is sort of measurable in data. Just two quick examples. In 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, "Are you a very important person?" And in 1950 12% said yes. They asked the same question in 2005, and it wasn't 12% who thought they were very important. It was 80%. And so the norms of how you think about yourself have changed."

If the graduating seniors in the auditorium heard nothing else, I hope they heard this. I further hope that some course or professor or extracurricular coach or director or priest or dorm head helped each of the gowned students learn this lesson: in the realm of things, we are not the center of the universe.

We are all here.

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