Reflections on Sane Spirituality

Of Honor, Responsibility and a Hat

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The scene: I'm in a line of 230 graduating Ph.D.’s and 17 others who, like me, are being given Doctor Honoris Causa, honorary doctorates from the University of Lund, Sweden. We're walking in a long snaking procession into into the enormous romanesque Lund Cathedral, where the graduation ceremonies are to be held. Two by two we walk, behind men and women in brass buttoned ancient military outfits bearing banners and flags, and behind darkly robed priests. Most of us wear tuxedos and tails, which is the customary if surprisingly formal graduation outfit of the University. Some of us, like me, wear the flowing academic gowns and colorful hoods and insignia of our own institutions and programs. Banners are fluttering, the orchestra is playing, and cannons, real brass cannons, announce the moment .

As we stream in, with music, flags and silent dignity, the audience of five thousand rises. They stand in honor of the husbands, wives, sons and daughters that are receiving their PhD's. I find myself strangely close to tears. Real love, admiration and respect is in this space. These young people have worked hard. They have made a contribution to knowledge and have established themselves as professionals (even if unemployed professionals for now). They are loved.

When my name is called to receive my Honorary Doctorate, as he does for every graduate, the department chairman calls my name and announces some of my accomplishments—all in Latin, like the rest of the ceremony. As he places the doctor’s hat onto my head, that brass cannon resounds—Boom! That cannon is an inheritance from the 17th century; as the internet of its day, it seems to announce the arrival of a newly minted scholar, or in my case, a newly minted Doctor Honoris Causa.

It is strange to be part of a ceremony that is conducted almost entirely in Latin. The printed program is in Svenske, Swedish, but fortunately for me most of the dissertations are in English, the world's second language. I entertain myself by reading dissertation titles: "Fire Hazard Analysis of Hetero-organic Fuels," "Analysis of an Apartheid Related conflict between the Dutch Church and the World Alliance of Churches," and "The Role of Vegetation Climate Feedback in Earth System Dynamics." What comes through is the diligence of these human efforts, and the determination these titles signify.

But there's something deeper here, much deeper than mere individual effort and wit. These dissertations are markers that these are people who are determined to make the human community better. These are folks who seek to improve communication so as to decrease unnecessary conflict, who want to improve medicine so that people can live more comfortably and longer. These are people who want to expand human possibility and raise consciousness and move human culture towards a more effective, world centered world.

Is it worth it, this journey? Is it worth so many years of these peoples' time, the effort, forebearance and wealth of their families and of the society that has helped make these long, sometimes arduous journeys possible? I think so. Over the great sweep of history, the challenges of life have increased along with the complexity in which we dwell. There is no doubt that well honed minds, no matter what the specifics of their study, have aided the general good more than poorly developed minds and spirits. Given the times we live in, its clear that there will be no lack of conflict, no lack of a fundamentalist undertow, no lack of resistance, no lack of challenges. In the face of these deep and always new difficulties, it is my hope, the hope of these people and of their professors and their society, that these newly minted scholars can better help blaze the way to new solutions, new pathways, new responses.

After my name was called, the hat placed on my head and the diploma given, I stand and look out over the sea of faces that are, just for that moment, looking back at me. Such seeing and being seen is, in its formal way, a great kindness of feedback. I feel it as a kind of announcement. Yes, you have done something good, Doctor Forman. Yes, you have made a contribution. Yes, you are a member of the human race, and have brought real value. Yes, we see you.

It feels like an initiation, this moment, a crossing of a kind of threshold. I have been seen as passing through the gateway of knowledge guarded by the two great dangers every original mind must face: the demons that leads us into lazy, customary solutions so that we will not penetrate freshly into the core of our problems and the demons that distract us by offering up sensual and interpersonal pleasures. I am being acknowledged as one who has made it into the land of deep and thoughtful contemplation. With the conferral of this degree I am being reborn, given in effect a bigger megaphone for my voice. I appreciate the recognition. And this moment makes me even more determined to rise to the challenge it represents.

Each person, no matter who they are or how long they have lived has faced fear, has faced the unknown, has faced the lower emotions. It is the test of character as to what a person decides under pressure. That a parent gives up a career possibility to be with a sick child. That a wife (or husband) gives up their calling to support their spouse. That a child grows up in emotion or psychic pain because they don't know any other way, and works to rebuild their life and psyche. Being human is not a problem to be solved but a process to be experienced, a challenge to be risen to. Those who've done it best have been memorialized as our heroes, from Odysseus to Moses, Christ, to Mohammed. All that is human for us was human for our ancestors and will be human for our descendants. So what we can bring is an appreciation of the difficulty of each of our journeys, of breaking out of the particular fears and neurosis that are our lot, and the wisdom and energy it takes to produce works that contribute to humanity.

This ceremony was quietly beautiful. It was for a few brief moments a being welcomed and valued, and a warming of my soul at the bonfire of humanity’s collective knowledge and wisdom. It was an acknowledgement of not only who've I've been but who I can become. And in essence who each of us can become.

I look forward to seeing some of you at next year's bonfire.

Written with Tom Feldman, Wise soul

Updated 07-22-2010 at 03:32 PM by Bob-ji

Sane Spirituality , Spirituality & Relationships



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