Stanley L. Olsen
Opening Convocation address
Laurens van der Post was in Washington D.C. this summer same time as I was. Or perhaps I should say I was in Washington D. C. this summer the same time as Laurens van der Post was. Not that he knew I was there. Nor would I have known about this man -- extraordinary as it seems to me now--if The Washington Post had not interviewed him. Eighty-six years young, Laurens van der Post is a Renaissance man, the author of 23 books, an intense lover of sea and the many places the sea has led him to call home--South Africa, where he was raised by a Bushman nurse, a descendant of the first Dutch settlers; Japan, where he lived three years before WWII; and England, his current home. His remarkable memoir Yet Being Someone Other is a spiritual chronicle of van der Post's experiences with the sea. It frames what I wish to say today.
"Unpath'd waters, undream'd shores" are Shakespeare's words from The Winter's Tale. The sea--its unpath'd waters, undream'd shores--is a powerful image of the ever-changing frontiers of lives--an image of departure, adventure, and arrival. Being on the high seas has associations of romance and adventure, associations that airports just cannot give. Seachanges are awesome, fearful, beauteous experiences. This convocation today recognizes that we journey unpath'd waters to undream'd shores.
Actually the words "unpath'd waters, undream'd shores are not used in a positive sense in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Camillo, an old adviser, tells the young lovers to take refuge at the King of Sicilia's. To do so, Camillo tells the lovers will to be on "a course more promising. Than a wild dedication of yourselves To unpath'd waters, undream'd shores. . . ." But we must not let Camillo spoil the meaning of that lovely phrase. When he tells the lovers to take a more promising course than a wild dedication of themselves to unpath'd waters, undream'd shores, Camillo knows the pertinent information that the lovers do not know. They do not know that this path is more promising, that it will resolve all impediments to their marriage, that it will unite the beautiful Perdita with her royal mother and father, that it will heal wounds between friends and kingdoms. They can only wildly dedicate themselves to the "unpath'd waters, undream'd shores" ahead.
For you first year students, this year marks your departure from home, from that which has been familiar. And you will continue to travel these academic years and beyond to unfamiliar places, both literally and in your mind's eye. My hope is that you will wildly dedicate yourself to the voyage, the yet-to-be-discovered paths of your mind, your spirit, and your universe. Wild dedication--I embrace that phrase--because what you are about has nothing bland about it, nothing of the "I've been here before, ho-hum," nothing of the "Just another year of requirements," nothing of the "Let me get college out of the way so I can get a job and get on with my life." Wild dedication, wild not in the sense of careless or ungoverned, but wild in the sense of intense commitment to the active life of this academic community. If you dedicate yourselves, yes wildly, to the perilous business of learning, you will be initiated into this high sea adventure before arrivals on undream'd shores. This year will test your courage, steel you to endurance, and increase the color and meaning of your life. If it does not, this community has failed you or you have failed yourselves by settling for less. If you wildly dedicate yourselves to this journey, what an impelling force you will be to this faculty, this administration, and this staff at Augustana College. For we are together on the seas of discovery of the frontiers of the external world and our internal spirits.
Some observations are in order, some thoughts for the journey:
1 . No path is only random. For some of you your path may seem random. All what you may call random will fall into its rightful place. There will be a focus. Your seemingly random path will serve wider shores.
2. Few answers are one-dimensional. Few answers are one-dimensional
3. You will confront the subterranean areas of the human spirit, the underworld of the soul. These are fearsome confrontations. It is fearsome when the volcanic underworld of the soul erupts. It is fearsome to realize that we cannot dismiss the possibilities of eruption in our own souls We must know what Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Wiesel means when he tells Oprah Winfrey about his experiences in Nazi extermination camps, when he says, "In those days a piece of bread was mightier than God."
4. You will come to know "uses and value of adversity." Arthur Ashe, the tennis great and gentleman of the court, was an ardent believer in "the uses and value of adversity." His memoir Days of Grace gives attention to the value of adversity. Jonathan Yardley, who reviews Ashe's memoir, remarks that it is not surprising that Arthur Ashe went on the offensive after the public knowledge of his Aids, taking speaking engagements almost to the last day of his life, pleading for tolerance, supporting scientific inquiry into the disease. Ashe wrote, "As I settled deeper into this new stage of my life, I became increasingly conscious of a certain thrill., an exhilaration even, about what I was doing. Yes, I felt pain, physical and psychological; but I also felt something like pleasure in responding purposefully, vigorously, to my illness. I had lost many matches on the tennis court, but I had seldom quit. I was losing, but playing well now; my head was down, eyes riveted on the ball as I stoked it; I had to be careful but I could not be tentative; and my follow-through must flow from the shot, fluid and smooth."
5. Both being and doing are two different, equally necessary activities of life.
6. It is not enough to live horizontally. We must live vertically as well.
We celebrate the opening academic year in this place because we acknowledge the significance of living vertically. We are part of God's luxurious universe, the details of which leave us in wonder. We are made to glorify God. With glad hearts we stand in this place to proclaim God's Glory. The psalmist in Psalm 104 sings, "0 Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom those hast 'made' to play therein." (24, 25, 26)
"I will sing praise to my God while I have my being" (33), sings the psalmist. The words resonate in us. Wherever our shores, we know our contract with life is precious. Wherever our shores, we will sing praise.