Almost every family has its own rituals. In my particular tribe, whether it was having a catch (or is it “playing” catch?) with my dad, or reading bedtime stories to my kids, I assumed that these regular occurrences would go on forever. When they did come to an end, I wasn’t at all aware of the change at the time; it was only later that I saw their finality in the rear view mirror.
When my dad chucked his beat up old Spalding, left-handed baseball glove in the front hall closet after our final long toss, I didn’t recognize that we had just had our last catch. Of course, we kept that glove in the closet, where we always kept it, for the sure-to-be next time. In the same way, one night many years later, after I finished reading aloud “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (or was it “Danny, Champion of the World”?), there is no way I would have thought, “That’s it, Aidan and Liam, you are on your own. From now on, you can read to yourselves!” No, I’m sure those books were plopped right there on the nightstand, where they always stayed. After all, there would always be another night, another book together.
This morning, by contrast, I am aware, profoundly aware, that this is the last time I’ll get to speak to you here in Laidlaw Hall. I think that this awareness, along with all the words of wisdom I’ve recently received from having attending 3 commencement exercises this spring, makes me want to offer some advice for the long-haul. So I hope you’ll indulge me, if I go Polonious on you for a few minutes.
(By the way, the one line from my own graduation that has actually stayed with me through the years came courtesy of the pundit George F. Will who said, “I believe in the State of Ohio 1895 Automobile View of History. That is, in the state of Ohio in the year 1895, there were 2 cars. And they crashed.” In other words, bad things are going to happen, so be prepared!)
There will, of course, be magical mornings in Muskoka and beautiful evenings on Bloor Street, but you don’t need any help from me on how to manage those moments. You’re on your own there! No, this morning I want to offer a word advice for when bad things happen. And unfortunately, they will. They happen to all of us. Even if you eat your vegetables, do sit-ups, and really learn the passé compose. No matter what you do, some day there is a good chance you will hear a boss say, “It’s time for you to find a new job.” Or a partner confess, “It’s not you it’s me.” Or a doctor mutter, “I need to give you some bad news.”
I call these moments “The Big Arbitrary” because, despite your most conscientious efforts, you cannot control them. I’ll come back to “The Big Arbitrary” in a minute, but before that, I want to tell you why I was really nervous about becoming the principal of UCC 12 years ago, and about how a word of advice from a friend made things better for me. I wasn’t anxious about moving to a new country or learning how to skate backwards. I wasn’t even worried about my French accent. C’est la vie! No, what made me queasy was the fact that a significant part of my job would involve fund raising, and while I am wildly, passionately, and over the top committed to financial aid, I had never ever asked anyone other than my parents for money. And the thought of doing this on a regular basis made me feel downright nauseous.
Fortunately for me, I had a colleague give me some great advice: Asking for money is the very last thing to think about; my job with advancement was really about getting to know people who could help the boys and help the school; and the best way to do that was to listen very closely, especially when they told stories.
I hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s true that everyone has a story, a tale that reveals something important about their coming of age; or about what made them who they are; or about how they survived a challenge or difficulty that might otherwise have overwhelmed them. You may not be aware of your own story just yet, but it’s there somewhere, perhaps still in the formative stage of your consciousness.
One old boy from Hong Kong told me about how kind his English teacher, Marshall Webb, was when he first came to UCC, and about how Mr. Webb helped him understand “King Lear”, even though the then new boy found basic English almost incomprehensible. More than one old boy has told me about how Andrew Turner and Brent McKay, men who were their coaches and dorm masters, were also wonderful father figures when they first moved into Wedds and Seatons. There are lots and lots of stories about the men and women who shaped the boys and men of UCC. It’s those stories, by the way, that keep graduates connected to the school, long after the Leaving Class Ceremony is a distant memory. It’s those stories that really matter, long after facilities, and programs, and academic awards have drifted away into the hazy past.
Which brings me back to what I call “The Big Arbitrary.” At the risk of self-indulgently going “Dr. Phil” on you, I’d like to tell you my formative story. It goes like this:
My dad was an alcoholic. I wasn’t aware of this when I was a kid, because he went to work every day at the Lansdowne Post Office. Like many people at the time, I assumed that alcoholics were the poor, unemployed men on Skid Row. My dad, by contrast, was so determined to prove to my mom that he wasn’t an alcoholic, that he didn’t take even so much as a single vacation day for a decade, just to prove that alcohol wasn’t a problem. Even in hindsight, his drinking didn’t seem all that different from the other men who lived in our hardscrabble, blue collar, row house neighbourhood.
When I was in junior high school, though, my dad really tried to sober up, and he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous, a program designed to help people with addiction issues. I often went along to 12 step meetings myself, because initially at least, I wanted to do everything I could to help my dad. I confess that I walked around on eggshells because I always felt that, if I messed up, that might set him off, and he’d go out on a toot. I realize now that that wasn’t clear thinking on my part, but that’s how my mind worked in those days. By the way, there are all kinds of 12 step meetings; besides AA, there is also Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Over Eaters Anonymous to name just a few.
What all of these groups have in common, in addition to slogans, steps, and principals designed to promote self-awareness and sobriety, is a common prayer, a prayer that is said aloud by the whole group at the end of each meeting. The prayer, written originally by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can and the
Wisdom to know the difference.
I’d like to offer 3 observations (or “takeaways” if you like) on Niebuhr’s prayer:
First, the prayer starts with the word “God”, and that term can be something of a problem for some people. AA tries to defuse this by referring to God simply as a “higher power.” Many members don’t believe in a theology of any kind, so while a higher power can reflect a traditional understanding of God, it can also involve belief in a group, or in nature, or in anything or anyone you might have faith in or be inclined to turn to for help. Don’t let the fact that you had a mean minister or a rotten rabbi ruin things for you. The point is we all need to be or learn to be humble enough to ask for help and humble enough to take advice. Humility is the key to getting better.
Second, the prayer begins with request for acceptance, for accepting what you can’t change. The hard truth here is you can’t change many and perhaps even most things. I couldn’t stop my dad from drinking. You and I can’t change the economy, the weather, geo-political strategy in the Middle East, the designated hitter rule, the IB grading scheme, or someone else’s bad mood. There are all kinds of things out there over which you and I have absolutely no control. It’s hard, and it can be frustrating at times, but we need to come to terms with that simple truth.
Third, is a request for courage to change what you can, and the insight here is that the only thing you really can change is yourself and how you look at the world. Aristotle said you can’t control the wind, but you can control your sails. Victor Frankl, a Jew who survived the Nazi death camp and knew a thing or two about dealing with adversity, pointed out that ultimate freedom is the way you choose to look at things. We may not always be conscious of this, but we always have a choice. Today can be dreary, depressing dark sky day or it can be a great day for a cup of tea and a good book. How we view things is a personal decision, and we should train ourselves to be conscious of that.
So remember that when the Big Arbitrary dope slaps you — as it inevitably will — I hope you’ll remember the serenity prayer. I hope you’ll remember to control the controllable, and accept what you can’t.
Speaking of the controllable, I want to tell you that despite a couple of initial slips after coming out of rehab, my dad did an amazing thing; he spent the last 42 years of his life sober, living as they say in AA speak, “one day a time”. He kept going to his meetings, and along the way, he helped others who had their own battles with addiction. Near the end of his life, he told me that he felt that becoming an alcoholic had actually been a blessing because AA helped him become a better man. (He had a good rear view mirror, too.) At his funeral, which took place 5 years and 2 days ago, (not that anyone’s counting) I was stunned by the number of guys my age, men I’d never met before, who thanked me for what my dad had done to help them with their own sobriety.
I’ll end this morning by pointing out that there is a thread of sorts that links all of us through the web of generations and geography, and I am conscious of the fact that, since I haven’t had an original idea since 1983, most of what I’ve thrown at you on Monday mornings these past few years has been an echo of what my father tossed my way. If you caught one or two sliders, that’s great, and I hope you’ll toss a breaking ball or two into the future, as well. Even if you don’t have your own beat up old Spalding, left-handed baseball glove.