Bob Ryan to the Class of 2013: Seek the scars of hope
June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Ignatian Educator is honored to continue its commencement series with the publication of the commencement address of Bob Ryan, principal of Brophy College Preparatory (f. 1928) in Phoenix, AZ. (Editor’s note: the below has been slightly edited for publication.)
Seek the Scars of Hope
By Bob Ryan
(Delivered to the graduates of Brophy College Preparatory on May 25, 2013)
My three-and-a-half year old daughter is going through a phase right now where she’s really particular when we read books at night. She’s become obsessed with what she calls the “finding things” books. You probably remember these from when you were a kid, the Where’s Waldo-type books that give you a list of images that you need to identify over the course of the book. Recently, those are the only books she’ll even consider allowing me to read. These “finding things” books tend to pretty effectively hold the attention of my three-and-a-half year old, so I’m going to try a similar tact with you guys this morning. No offense. There are five main characters to listen for in the “finding things” reflection I’m about to share with you.
I’m going to tell a story about a fish, a Jesuit, an Irishman, and two guys named Wallace. And they won’t necessarily appear in that order, so you need to be on your toes. A fish, a Jesuit, an Irishman, and two guys named Wallace. And no, they aren’t walking into a bar.
I’ll start with the fish.
“So there are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says ‘What the heck is water?’”
I know that many of you have heard this story before. It was the opening of a commencement address given by the writer David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. A few months ago, someone made a short film using the text of his speech and the video has gone viral. It’s a great speech and a great video that I encourage you to watch if you haven’t yet seen it.
One fish turns to the other and says, what the heck is water? Wallace told this story to make the point that the most obvious, important realities in life are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. He argues that the whole purpose of education is to awaken us to reality and the fact that we have the ability to choose how we interpret reality.
This simple story of the fish struck me because I think it’s at the core of what we’ve tried to do with you these past four years. Each afternoon, our entire community considers this when we ask ourselves, “How is God at work in my life?” We go through this ritual of the Examen every day so that we don’t live our lives swimming aimlessly in water we don’t even notice. Underscoring everything we’ve done with you these last four years has been our desire to awaken and instill in you a deep sense that your reality, the water of your lives, is infused with the grace and activity of God.
You sit here this morning having completed a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. And while your classes have prepared you for success in college, they were designed to do much more than prepare you for the next, bigger, deeper fish tank through which you might otherwise swim blindly and without purpose. The Jesuit tradition of providing you with a broad liberal arts education has given you the tools to observe, analyze, deconstruct, and engage the world around you. And your exposure to the arts has instilled in you a greater appreciation of the beauty of God’s creation.
Surely by now, you’ve come to embrace one of the most celebrated virtues of Jesuit education – the experience of community and brotherhood. Through your participation in clubs, teams, theatrical productions, student publications, musical programs, retreats, immersion trips, service projects and the myriad other activities left in your wake, you’ve not only become more aware of your passions and interests, you’ve also come to a deep realization that none of us swim alone. We are all at our best when we exist in community.
Lastly but certainly not least, there has been no greater sign of God’s presence in your journey than the role your parents and families have played over the last four years. Whether it was working longer hours, taking fewer vacations, spending hours in the car driving you to and from school and activities, or waiting up late at night to make sure you arrived home safely, your families have sacrificed both time and treasure so that you could flourish here at Brophy.
Over the past few weeks as I’ve reflected on your class and talked with your teachers, I’ve been struck by the ways you’ve responded to God’s presence in your life. One need only peruse the graduation program, which is a virtual catalogue of hundreds of examples of your answer to the Examen’s second question. But the program and list of awards is of course incomplete; it doesn’t speak to the many untold and unsung accomplishments of your class. The program lists overall academic honors, but doesn’t tell the story of the moments of enlightenment that happen on a daily basis in your classes.
The athletic success your class has achieved is well documented. But while the number of state championships and the list of spectacular plays is lengthy, it is worth noting that these teams were successful in large part due to the efforts of guys who consistently worked hard and maintained a positive attitude even if their names didn’t appear in the newspaper every week. And so many of you have been outstanding examples of what it means to commit to the service of others. In ways both heralded and unsung, your class has certainly responded to the abundant graces in your lives.
In his remarks to the graduates of Kenyon College eight years ago, David Foster Wallace said, “The real value of an education has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over, ‘This is water.'”
This is water. One might interpret this to mean that the purpose of your having been at Brophy the last four years is for you to become deeply aware of how blessed you all are so that as you swim out of here later today, you continue to remind yourself over and over: “I am wonderful, I am talented, I am blessed, God loves me….” This is of course true. But it’s incomplete.
Fr. Anton Renna is a Jesuit who retired from Brophy at the end of your eighth grade year after having taught English here for 45 years. Fr. Renna always told his seniors that on this day, when you walk across this stage, if you walk out that door and are satisfied with the world that awaits you, we as Jesuit educators will have failed you. If you graduate today and are satisfied with the world that you enter, we will have failed you. While on one hand we have spent four years trying to make you aware of all of your gifts and talents, we also have tried to open you up to the glaring inequities and injustices in our world. Throughout your classes here, during the yearly Turkey and Lenten Drives, school prayer services, and through the activities of the annual Summit on Human Dignity we’ve spent four years trying to unsettle, trying to disturb you.
And you have experienced the brokenness of the world firsthand through your Freshman Breakaway and Junior Justice Project. You not only can debate the merits and deficiencies of our current immigration policy, you can do so having listened to recently deported migrants at the Kino Border Initiative. Not only have you explored the reasons why millions of children go to bed hungry each night, you’ve read books to some of these children during Loyola Project or at Homeward Bound, and you’ve played soccer with them during your immersion trips to Guatemala or El Salvador.
If we’ve done our job, you’ll leave aware of and uncomfortable with the world that awaits you.
Author and political columnist Jim Wallis says that the only people who have this awareness of reality are the cynics and the saints. Everybody else lives in some kind of denial about what is really going on and how the world really is. The cynic doesn’t live in denial or ignorance of the world’s problems – you’ll now never be able to claim ignorance — but the cynic sees the world and opts to accept it as it is. As you leave Brophy and enter the world you know to be broken, you’ll be tempted to go the route of the cynic. You’ll be tempted to take the safe route. Which leads to my story of the Irishman . . .
There is an old Irish legend about a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks St. Peter to let him in. “I’ve lived a good life and am ready to enjoy heaven for all eternity,” the man says. St. Peter responds, “Of course, no problem, all we ask is that you show us your scars.” The man replied, “I have no scars.” “What a pity,” St. Peter said, “Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
The further removed you get from Brophy, it will be enticing to look back to the children you worked with at Crisis Nursery or those you played soccer with in Guatemala and say, “I don’t really like it, but that’s just the way the world is.” This is cynicism: the willingness to accept the unacceptable. It is the tolerance of a world where the gap in life expectancy between the wealthiest and poorest nations is nearly 40 years. To be cynical is to be resigned to this status quo. Cynicism is safe, it is the easy route, it is convenient, and can even be lucrative, but cynicism is not interesting. It is not intelligent, it is not creative, it is certainly not courageous and ultimately, cynicism is not befitting of young men who have had access to a Jesuit education.
Jim Wallis says that the only difference between the cynics and the saints is that the saints have made the conscious and deliberate decision to live in hope. Wallis defines hope as believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. Believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. The Jesuit education you have received here at Brophy has prepared you well for this choice.
Consider the Calculus test you never thought you’d pass, or the synthesis paper you never thought you’d finish, let alone find to be so meaningful. Consider the two-a-day workouts you never thought you’d survive, or the Kairos retreat you thought would simply be an excuse to get away from school. Your time at Brophy has been full of challenges and presented plenty of opportunities to shut down, to surrender to the piles of evidence that might have suggested you resign yourself to the status quo, to what you knew would come easily. But because you’ve made it this far, you have seen the evidence change. You know that, despite what you thought possible or likely four years ago, the evidence of who you are has changed and evolved during your time at Brophy. And as a result, you are now prepared to spend your life looking for intersection points between the gifts that have been cultivated in you and the needs of the world that await you.
Lastly, when you receive your diploma later this morning, you’ll also receive a lifetime activities pass since we want you to know that you will always have a home here at Brophy. For home isn’t where you live; it’s where you belong. And as young men who will rise above the cynicism of this age and authentically live the ideals of Jesuit education, you will always belong to the Brophy family.
We await your visits and look forward to seeing the scars you will earn as members of the class of 2013, Brophy graduates unleashed upon the world as people of hope. May you continue to grow as young men unwilling to accept the unacceptable but ready and anxious to change what is believed to be possible. Congratulations.
Bob Ryan is the principal of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, AZ. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For prior entries in The Ignatian Educator commencement series, click here.