Blank pages: Making time to listen to our hearts

When slam poet and newest Williams Bicentennial Medalist Mayda Del Valle ’00, speaking at Convocation last Saturday, urged the senior class to “listen to your life,” you could almost hear her words land in the target of those several hundred hearts robed in stylish Commencement black. A few moments earlier in the ceremony, Rachel Ko ’09 had won the Grosvenor Cup, one of Williams’ highest honors, at least partly in recognition of her gift to this community of “Story Time” – where, each week, we have a chance to listen in as members of our community listen to their own lives. It left me wondering if, perhaps, this will be a year when one of the hallmarks of life in this little valley will be more frequent visits to that place within each of us where we keep the truths that matter most to us, where we feel the yearnings that most animate us, where we store the energy that powers the best in us.

If so, it would be an almost counter-cultural turn of events. As I said to the first-year class last week, Williams tends to be a place where people are so busy living the story of their lives that they don’t very often pause to listen to the story of their lives or ponder what it might be trying to tell them. This year we, in the Chaplains’ Office, committed a slightly subversive act: we gave each first-year student a blank book as a welcome-to-Williams present. I like to hope that at least some of you will from time to time set aside a few moments even in the midst of the madcap pace of life in this place, to listen – to tell the story of this passing time, and to wonder what it means.

This summer I had a chance to revisit a blank book that became, once its author had filled its pages, one of history’s great spiritual treasures: the Confessions of Augustine, a Christian saint of the 4th century C.E. There’s a moment (in Book X of the Confessions) when Augustine says, with what seems to me to be a mixture of consternation and elation, “I am become a question to myself.” In rediscovering those potent words, I felt as though a rusty, little-used gate had just swung open, and I was again exploring the passageway to the place where I ask myself the biggest questions: about purpose, value, meaning, destiny. The contemporary Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh encourages a kind of mindful living in which, for example, we never even eat a morsel of food without considering where it came from. The way we live our days here, paying attention is one of our most costly disciplines – because, at Williams, no commodity is as precious as time. But making time to listen to the always-becoming question is not a luxury, an extravagance, or an indulgence; it’s a necessity.

And if this all sounds like an invitation to narcissistic navel-gazing, I hasten to add that some part of the question that we are each becoming to ourselves is about what larger thing we are a part of, what it is that we belong to. We’re as likely to encounter it in visiting a friend at Sweetbrook Nursing Home or tutoring at Conte Middle School as we are by walking up Stone Hill. If we succeed, from time to time, in opening up a reflective clearing within the overflowing landscape of our days, the view from that clearing connects each of us to all of us. Last year a combination of events led us to become perhaps more of a question to ourselves, or amplified the posing of the question, than is usual for this community. When the volatile chemistry of narrow or callous views, alcohol and a flip social culture exposed habits of insufficient reflection and unchallenged arrogance, the Stand With Us campaign insisted that we hear the question and engage. If the events that provoked Stand With Us represented, in effect, a failure of imagination – an inability or unwillingness to imagine what it feels like to be somebody else – then perhaps this year the “Claiming Williams” initiative will open up fresh imaginative space in which to be mindful about each morsel of life together, at such a remarkably high density of cultural and experiential difference. Our attempt over these next nine months to build a community worthy of the name will reach new heights to the degree that we sink its foundations in new depths of listening. There is no more radical change we could hope for.

So welcome to a new year of blank pages. The story of this year won’t write itself. May we all find and take and treasure the time we need to listen to it, to reimagine community, and to befriend, again, the questions at the heart of our time – each of us alone, and all of us together.