So I would urge you to set aside some time — preferably when you're alone and in a quiet place — to reflect on those larger questions. A public commencement ceremony, by contrast, is an occasion for speakers to regale you with sage advice and ringing metaphors that are supposed to travel with you and guide you for many years to come. Today's ceremony is no exception, and President Hynes has chosen wisely. Not only did he invite me to share my accumulated wisdom with you, but he allotted me 15 minutes to do it!
He didn't say what the extra five minutes are for.
Since I've already used those extra minutes, let me follow tradition and offer you a metaphor. It's a bit shopworn but quite useful — the metaphor of a bridge. Today you are pausing at the end of one of the most important bridges you will ever cross. Your years here at St. Norbert have prepared you to begin forming serious answers to serious questions: What next? What purposes should you pursue? What values are worth trying to achieve?
When you tackle questions like those, a bridge is an especially helpful metaphor, for several reasons:
- Bridges usually aren't found in nature. They're built by humans to serve human purposes.
- Bridges have to be adapted to an endless variety of circumstances, a requirement that will call up your intelligence and creativity.
- And because bridges serve human purposes, they prompt you to reflect on human values.
Today, of all days, is a moment to appreciate the educational bridge that has borne you across the past four years. St. Norbert is an unusually sturdy bridge, built and maintained by people who understand the value of a liberal arts education, and who have preserved that value against the corrosive fashions of political correctness and moral relativism.
I counsel you to make it a part of your purpose, in the years ahead, to help maintain this bridge for those who will follow you. Someone once said that students ask "Why?" Professors ask "How?" And alumni ask "How much?"
When you receive fundraising letters from the alumni office — and you will — think of them as invoices for bridge maintenance, and do your part to keep this particular bridge in good repair.
Before you pay those invoices, though, you'll need to build some bridges of your own. And you can, because you're blessed to live in a nation that protects your rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Pursue happiness with your whole mind and whole heart, and learn to understand and build the kinds of bridges that happiness demands.
I'm sure you've learned a good deal about the virtues here at St. Norbert. You probably haven't thought of them as bridges, but they are. Courage, temperance, perseverance, compassion, and all the rest — all are bridges.
Make it your avocation to study and emulate the builders of those bridges. Let me relate two stories that illustrate what I'm getting at.
The first takes place on October 18, 1986. President Ronald Reagan is meeting in Iceland with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The purpose is to broker an arms-control agreement that will end the deadly standoff of "mutually assured destruction" between the United States and the Soviet Union.
At least, that appears to be the purpose. But after days of talks, just as the deal is about to be struck, Gorbachev looks across the table at Reagan, smiles, and says, "This all depends, of course, on you giving up SDI," the Strategic Defense Initiative. Well, missile defense is one thing Ronald Reagan would never give up.
"I couldn't believe it," he later recalled. "I blew my top…. I realized that he had brought me to Iceland with one purpose, to kill the Strategic Defense Initiative."
What Reagan does next will stun the world. He turns to Secretary of State George Shultz and says, "The meeting is over. Let's go, George, we're leaving." And he walks out.
In her Reagan biography, When Character Was King, Peggy Noonan goes right to the heart of this story. Let me quote a few lines:
Reagan had everything to gain — everything in the eyes of the world — if he had accepted the Reykjavik deal. He would have had the applause and respect of his foes, the thanks of a relieved world …. He would have been celebrated by history, known the pleasure of having given the world a gift of extraordinary and undreamed-of progress. Nothing but win all around him. But he wouldn't do it. … He didn't think it was right. And because he didn't do it, the Soviet Union finally fell.
Now, leave Iceland and turn the calendar back 31 years. It is the evening of December 1, 1955, and we're in Montgomery, Alabama. City buses are carrying people home from work. On one bus all the seats are filled, including the section behind the rear doors, the only place blacks are allowed to sit in 1955.
The bus stops and four white men board. The driver calls out to the four black passengers seated right behind the white section: Get up, he tells them. Let the white men have those seats. Three do as they're told.
But the fourth doesn't budge. The other passengers turn and stare in stunned silence. Rosa Parks is defying the unwritten, centuries-old code of racial subservience. She is also defying Alabama law.
The driver gets off the bus and summons a policeman, who arrests the woman and takes her to jail.
Viewed from one perspective, Ronald Reagan and Rosa Parks couldn't have been more different. He was the most powerful person in the world — commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. She was one of the least powerful — an unknown black seamstress working in the back room of a department store in the deep South.
But in a more fundamental sense, they couldn't have been more admirably alike. All the political power on earth couldn't have moved Reagan to do the wrong thing. And all the indignity and intimidation of racism couldn't keep Rosa Parks from doing the right thing.
It was courage that made Ronald Reagan get up and leave.
It was courage that kept Rosa Parks in her seat.
And in those seemingly simple acts, each began building a bridge that would deliver millions of oppressed people to their God-given birthright of freedom and dignity — in the Reagan case, the people of Central and Eastern Europe; and in the Parks case, citizens of the United States.
Look for the great bridge builders. Learn from them. Become one, if you can. Forty minutes from now you might not remember anything I've said. I haven't seen anyone taking notes — and today that's all right! But 40 years from now, I hope you will carry with you the sentiment expressed in a little poem I want to read you. It's called "The Bridge Builder," by Will Allen Dromgoole. She was a columnist with the Nashville Banner during the early years of the 20th century.
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fears for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way;
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide —
Why build you the bridge at the eventide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
"This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."