Beauty is truth

It wasn’t pretty: The torrential rain that seemed to burst without warning through what had been a brilliant, sunny sky. The sudden, bone-chilling drop in temperature that shivered through every cap and gown, high heel, and sports jacket. The mysterious swoosh of wind through the stadium that swept the mortarboards off the graduates’ heads and lifted the pages of the speech that was being delivered (with such indomitable spirit) by our student speaker, Haley Andres, into the air and out of sight. The orchestra playing “Pomp and Circumstance” nearly drowned out, literally, by the tent’s bulging roof above, filling with water, threatening to burst upon them. Not pretty.

Then, the rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning. We had to clear the field—almost 700 graduates and a couple thousand family members abandoned the field and were led to refuge in Memorial Fieldhouse, while thousands of other stalwart family members bravely held to their seats under the stadium roof, as the almost-apocalyptic storm blew through. The heavens issued to the Class of 2014 a chilling welcome into the cold and cruel world. It wasn’t pretty at all.

Until it was. That was after we had finally reassembled the troops back on Peyton Field, arranged again by department and in alphabetical order, after their time of retreat into the field house. The students, wet and cold as they were, bless them, never seemed to lose their grit or enthusiasm or good spirits. As they finally heard their names called and walked across the stage, many now barefoot because their fancy shoes had been ruined, they reached for my hand and for their diplomas, their faces shining in undiluted joy through their matted hair and amidst cheers from rain-soaked family and friends. They had made it. They had triumphed. The glow on their faces was—truly—beautiful. And then the sun came out.

There was a lesson here. Two things had happened between the ugliness of the storm and that moment of pure beauty, which, at least for me, had sparked a transformation. It was only after the whole thing was over and I looked back on the field of battle that I could see things for what they were. Those secret sparks had arrived in two inspiring pieces of wisdom. Wisdom issued by two Muses about the journey on which we all were embarking.

First, while warehoused in the field house (crammed to the rafters with wet graduates in black gowns along with their allies in what was once their Sunday best), the crowd in retreat had a chance to hear, through the din, an inspiring Commencement address by Rachel Martin ’96. It was projected for them in the field house on a large video screen by live feed from the stage outside, where the platform party remained. An accomplished broadcast journalist and host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, a poised and game Rachel (eight months pregnant) stepped to the podium as she had stepped before live cameras and microphones so many times—on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan covering those conflicts as national security correspondent for NPR, and in our nation’s capitol before that as White House correspondent for ABC News.

Rachel reminded us toward the end of her address about her own journey through life and war and about what she had learned from it all, and from her own mother, about negotiating the inevitable storms of life. “The happiest people I have known have all had a deep ability to see joy where it’s hard to find,” she said. And continued:

We often think about the joys and pains of life happening in cycles—we talk about them as ups and downs, like a roller coaster. Highs and lows. But my mom told me once that she saw it differently. It’s like train tracks, she said; each side represents either joy or pain … and we ride them simultaneously. There is no such thing as ‘I’ll be happy when I just get over this one obstacle—when I get the right internship or job, when I get the right relationship, when I lose 10 pounds, when I have this much in the bank.’ Because there will always be something else.

As if channeling Aristotle along with her mother, Rachel was recalling for us that happiness is not a feeling we have, but a series of things we do, choices we make in developing a purposeful, even virtuous character that leads somewhere:

The key is to make the decision to lean a little heavier on that joy track. To mix metaphors—which I’m sure is making my UPS English professor cringe a little, but indulge me here—to me it’s like skiing … because when you lean further on one side, that becomes your compass; that becomes the direction you will go. …When it seems life is pushing you into a painful place, push back—lean into the joy. See it in others around you, and it will grow in your own life—and it will take you wherever you want to go.

So that’s the first piece of wisdom. The mountain road on which we are traveling will present us with often-surprising conditions we cannot control. What we can control is the choice we make about how we will embrace and manage them, and in what spirit we will do so, which will by definition take us where we want to go. That choice becomes our compass. Rain or shine.

The second piece of transformational wisdom came earlier. In fragments. It came from the aforementioned Haley Andres ’14, whose address to her class was as visually inspiring as it was conceptually profound. Ironically, the speech was called “A Blank Sheet of Paper,” the very condition her script assumed when she was interrupted by the howling wind, thunder, lightning, and rain that erased her notes as if written in disappearing ink. But Haley carried on. I can still see her standing there, the rain-drenched, crumbled sheets of her ruined script (the few that hadn’t been swept away by the wind) still in her hands, her fists lifted toward the threatening heavens as she shouted her message, her classmates cheering her courage and determination, drowning out the thunder’s roar. That image was beautiful, too. And there was wisdom in the scene.

But her words also were wise. Like Rachel, she spoke to the idea of moving forward, quoting the phenomenologist Erwin Straus, who described the act of walking as “continuously arrested falling.” As we walk from this place, after four years of preparation, into the world that awaits us, Haley said, “we are all throwing ourselves into a state of continuously arrested falling that will last for the rest of our lives—strangely frightening.” Then she added:

But it is not all scary. …The falling that Straus speaks of is arrested; it stops. We are the ones who stop it. As a class we have already proved ourselves capable of continuously arresting our falls. We have defied expectations and dazzled audiences by putting on magic shows with the Wiz; supported our peers who felt powerless, with groups like Peer Allies; danced like we never had before at RDG; and fought for a cure over countless miles during Relay For Life.

Then Haley returned to her title and the fact that each one in the graduating class (and all of us) is metaphorically holding a blank sheet of paper in our hands, a paper that is awaiting the map we will draw upon it, that will chart out how we will get from where we are to where we are going. “Although, on this day, we have begun a lifetime of continuously arrested falling,” she said, “that movement may be backwards, to the side, or forward; it may be fast or slow; the point is that we are moving, making new maps, and actively engaging with the spaces around us.”

Beautiful, right? Two Loggers from two generations, at different stages of their respective journeys—on different coordinates in the maps of their lives—reminding us in the midst of a storm to choose to lean into joy when the rains come and to recall that every step forward is a determined interruption of falling down.

Maybe it wasn’t pretty, that Commencement Sunday. But it was beautiful. And so eminently true. As Keats put it, beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is really all we need to know.