On November 11, 1918—almost exactly one hundred years from this, my last year as Dean of our college — leaders of both sides of a terrible conflict met in Compiegne, France to sign the Armistice which signaled the cessation of WWI hostilities. Thus ended —“forever”, thought many who survived the war, though that was not to be — a war of devastation and slaughter that precipitated killing on a dreadfully efficient scale, with fearful effect. WWI was the pivotal event of a monumental hinge of history.
In lives devastated and lost, cultures cleaved, creative works unrealized, populations dislocated, and in corruption of innocence, man’s folly — and it was MEN — was purchased at inexpressible cost.
In the aftermath of such Topheth, we seem always to have been able to rely upon the most sentient among us — artists, poets, spiritual guides, composers, dancers — dream-couriers all, to offer solace to help offset the indignity of our narcissistic indulgences. One of the most widely-embraced of these efforts begins:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row — on row,
That mark our place:
And in the sky, the larks —
Still bravely singing — fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Their offering: an image, a song, a story, an amen, or — as with Canadian soldier, physician, and poet John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields — a poem, for its time and for eternity. Every such narrative, or image, or performance, issues a cautionary tale of humankind’s cruelty and mindlessness.
The message of each is a plea for the ascendancy of our noblest instincts — a plea, and a reminder: that even within our most cultivated societies, individuals succumb to self-possessiveness, and — for the sake of squeezing power and wallowing in privilege — allow themselves to submit to their basest inclinations: to marginalize others, to dominate others, and to persecute others to the most extreme degree.
Sadly, there are consecrated sites in almost every nation — sites of official mourning — stone edifices, rows of crosses in proud review — honoring those who were tormented and swallowed by war’s malignant invoices. More sadly still is the presence of more desolate sites— raw sunken clefts, yawning holes, crowded pits roughly scraped over — unsanctified by cross or prayer or crude inscription: here the hearts of the innocents are buried. . . so many lost to memory.
For the despair that WWI summoned, and for the carnage and the crimes against humanity marshalled in by unrelenting failings of civilized societies in the years since WWI, we continue to pay the butcher’s bill.
To the many questions one would have today’s students ponder, might be added: “What is sacred when human life ceases to be?”
Without salvation offered by the human will and imagination, more species than have already perished are destined to suffer extinction. . . fueled by the havocs of unabated environmental humiliation, a prospect that brings into question the very relevancy of human morality. As it has with war, human evolution has wrought these dark threats too.
In the years since the end of WWI, societies the world over have experienced more — not less— violence, instability, insecurity, and injustice. Unchecked diseases, water and air pollution, famine, and squandered natural surrounds compound the un-kind toll. In societies that have become increasingly hostile to them, tens of millions of young people face a future that holds little hope for them — young refugees from the ruin of humanity’s fondest dreams.
Reflecting on awareness that inspires our professional and personal civility today, it’s easy to imagine being visited by the spirits of our predecessors — kindred souls, whom we summon from across the ages to commune with us. . . time voyagers at our sides, whispering their approval of our efforts here in the college to help restore sustainable communities, to speak out for the dispossessed, and to help reclaim ravaged ecosystems. Imagine them mingling quietly among us, encouraging us to stand fast against the enveloping darkness.
A prince among those who have passed whom we embrace as kindred spirits is Elie Wiesel, witness to history, messenger to humanity. . . conscience of the world, whose death in July 2016 we continue to mourn. In spirit and in memory, Elie Wiesel is still with us, as are all crusaders for righteous and redemptive causes who have preceded us.
We are all linked together by our willingness to make overcoming injustice, indifference, and intolerance our civil religion. We are poised here for one brief sigh of time. . . toiling in congress with one another, bending shoulders to the task of helping to resolve the most pressing challenges of our time.
In close communion, we share values and sentiments expressed by language unspoken, inspired by dreams of lands and seas unspoiled, and emboldened by spirits unbroken.
As we each began to frame the foundation of our professional expression, none of us set out in pursuit of the Divine. For most of us it was simple determination to speak out against incivility, and to take a stand against the malevolence and insensitivity of others which we understood — if left unchecked— would inflict more terrible injury on the planet (our Mother Earth) and its inhabitants than ever before experienced. Fortunately, we have been blessed by the presence here in our college of so many like-minded colleagues, who have helped to sustain us on our own individual Roads to Damascus, and who have helped us to refuel for the moral exertions that we will continue to demand of ourselves, for as long as we are able. . . for as long as it takes.
Along with many of you — an extraordinary band of crusaders, healers, and sentinels — I trust that, some years hence, our calling will be felt by others — adventurous youths, many not yet born — and that these new dreamers will bear witness, and wonder, and believe, and dare. . . and by daring, take up our crusade and carry it closer to completion. I trust also that when our actions are examined down the corridor of time, the judgment of history will note that the stars marched alongside us, that we found better songs to sing, and that the beneficent consequences of our engagements left no occasion for self-reproach.
Colleagues and friends, trust that for all of this, the cause which binds us will neither flag nor yield, and that we shall all be more engaged, and more improved — if still imperfect — selves, here as elsewhere, now and always.