I was in Boston this weekend for the Head of the Charles Regatta, and because we have a relationship with Harvard, our fans had the chance to watch the race from their boathouse. If you’ve ever been to Harvard, you cannot help but notice its motto “Veritas,” (“truth” in Latin); it is visible all over campus. While “Veritas” may lack the commanding imperative of “Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat,” it does possess an intriguing simplicity.
You can’t help but ask yourself, “What is the ‘truth’ that Harvard’s founders so intentionally wanted us to consider?” I believe it starts with understanding the truth about human nature, and this morning I want to talk about that nature by looking at 2 incidents, 2 very human moments, which revealed something about our nature to me just yesterday, when I was in the land of “Veritas.”
As is want to happen from time to time, I found myself reading a newspaper at a coffee shop, (not to name drop but it was a “Dunkin Donuts”) where I stumbled upon an article about Novgorod, a city in Russia that was built upon what scientists call “magical mud.” The ground in this part of Russia has almost no oxygen, and as a result, the soil acts as a natural preservative. Novgorod is Russia’s Pompeii, if you will, and scientists there have discovered thousands of artifacts, including letters from the 13th century, letters which were actually carved into birch bark. (Talk about the need to choose your words wisely!)
One letter, which was written from a father, named Onus, to his son, Danillo, says, “Send me a shirt, towel, and trousers…” and as if to inject a little dark, dark ages humour, Onus ends his note by saying, “and if I am alive, I will pay you.”
Another birch bark epistle is something of a love poem. Mikita writes to Anna, “Marry me. I want you, and you me.” Ok. Ok. It’s not exactly Wordsworth or Keats but remember the author didn’t have Christian Mingles.com, so poor Mikita had to find God’s match for him using only a chunk of wood!
But the letters that grabbed my attention were written in the year 1260 by a 6 year-old boy named Onfim. Some of these include Onfim’s school-work. It turns out he was a doodler! Onfim left us a number of drawings; in one he pictures himself riding triumphantly as a warrior on horseback. In another, he features a four-legged animal with a tail, and under it, Onfim wrote, and I love this, he wrote, “I, beast.”
Those two words took my breath away. Think about that for just a second. A 6 year-old boy, a boy the age of our Grade 1 lads, muses about himself or ponders some image of himself 754 years ago, and he expresses his dreams in one word: “beast”. From an echo lasting almost 8 centuries, this is EXACTLY the same word I heard on the sidelines of last Friday night’s football game, after a particularly violent hit under the lights. “That guy’s a beast!” And what’s amazing about all of this is that Onfim didn’t have Netflix. He never had the pleasure of seeing “Bravehart.” In fact, he never viewed so much as a single Underarmor ad. Without ever hearing anything from the muses of Madison Avenue, Onfim wanted to “protect his house”. He wanted to be a beast.
We share something of Onfim’s nature. We want to excel in some way, to stand out, to triumph. Who hasn’t had a heroic daydream or two — since breakfast? And we want to be able to point to our own triumphant beastliness in some way. Did you ever notice how athletes celebrate after moments of success? Take a look at the Youtube of Chris Amoah’s first touchdown run for Laval. Even fans get into the act. While we ourselves may not draw animal images on birch bark, or pound our chests in delight, think about the guttural sounds and the booming cheers of our Blue Army on the sidelines Friday night. Do you see a connection, you beasts?
(By the way, as an aside: Imagine how tough it was taking the IB’s “Language and Literature” course in the 1200’s. Can you imagine what it would be like to do multiple re-writes on birch wood? “But, sir, my rock’s not sharp any more!”)
As I was thinking about my friend Onfim, I happened to glance out the window in time to notice as a young woman wearing a red Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt walked over and gave a homeless woman the bagel she had just purchased. The Wisconsin fan had been in line in front of me just moments before, and she had either come in to Dunkin Donuts in order to purchase a bagel for the stranger or, after buying a bagel for herself, she then noticed the woman in need as she walked out of the store.
I can’t quite figure out which is the more altruistic scenario, but it struck me that a part of our nature involves compassion. There is something in our nature that makes us instinctively respond to others when they are in need, even when those others are complete strangers. That Badger fan didn’t do it for a prize or a point or even for the Duke of Ed; she simply responded to what she saw. It is the same altruistic impulse that led my friend, an infectious disease doctor named Tim Flanigan, to leave his family and friends this fall to volunteer in Liberia. Isn’t it telling, in a way, that we call this kind of service “humanitarian”? It is literally of us, and on our better days, this impulse defines us.
There are lots of other layers of reality within human nature, but I think that Onfim and the woman from Wisconsin speak to two truths, truths that are occasionally in tension with one another. One focuses on the push for individual success, while the other impels us to connect with the wider community. Like Onfim, we yearn to distinguish ourselves. And like that anonymous college student, we are compelled to respond to others.
A month ago I talked to you about “excellent sheep” and William Deresiewicz‘s criticism of approval-addicted “Hypsters.” What I learned in a Cambridge Dunkin Donuts makes me think that the “veritas” of human nature is that, when we follow what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, we’re not so much dutiful sheep as we are compassionate beasts. I hope our old pal Onfim would approve.