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Dr. George Cooper’s Convocation Address

Dr. George Cooper's Convocation Address

Mr. Chancellor, presidents and vice chancellors of King’s and of Dalhousie, fellow graduates, distinguished guests. It is beyond my power of words to express my inner joy and contentment at becoming with you, my fellow members of the 219th class, a graduate of this exalted university. And in this I am sure I speak as well for my fellow honourees, Suzie LeBlanc and Laish Boyd. For I regard King’s as an evergreen oasis of good sense and sound learning set in a parched and dusty desert swirling all around it.

This is my theme today. That said, I am deeply conscious of the sage advice of a former president of St. John’s University in the U.S. — “Convocation speakers should think of themselves as the dead body at an old fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but no one expects you to say very much.”

The problem with modern society is our self-centeredness. Our 21st century culture teaches us to look upon ourselves as the focal point of everything that matters, to think of our own personal gain and our own self-indulgence as the only good. We no longer give much thought to moral progress, except to assume that it goes hand in hand with the material. The sophisticated glitz that passes for contemporary television advertising holds out beguiling images of the material things we most ardently long for, as if by having them we will somehow find happiness. We are called upon to see life as an eternal candy store that never closes, with us as children perpetually glomming on to the latest confection in an unending stream of goodies baked up especially for us.

But as graduates of King’s, you know better. And why?

Because you have spent your time here in the company of the great thinkers of long ago. You understand, with Cicero, that not to know your culture’s past is to remain a child forever. You have felt the pull of what the Elizabethan antiquarian William Camden called the “back-looking curiosity.” Antiquity, he wrote, “Hath a certain resemblance with eternity. [It] is a sweet food of the mind.” You know, with G.K. Chesterton, that tradition doesn’t mean that the living are dead, but that the dead are still living. You have dwelt among a host of learned professors whose minds are stuffed with the wisdom of the ages, and intellects to match, and personalities more colourful than even our fantasy-laden TV culture could possibly imagine. It would be invidious to single out any one of them, but I don’t have to, because you already hold your own favourite specimens firmly fixed in your mind. They have changed you forever.

In short, no one needs to preach to you about the shortcomings of our modern culture. Your time at king’s and her great sister academy, dalhousie, has taught you how to think your own way out through the back door of the eternal candy store and up into the fresh air of the evergreen glade.

So, what can I usefully say to you today? I, a refugee from the turbulent, drug-experimenting graduating classes of the 1960’s? A generation of which it is said, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there”?

I cannot tell you what to do with your lives, for each of us most choose for him or her self. But there are some things you must believe in, whatever your vocation. I suggest three.

First, you must believe in something outside yourself. Remember tevye, the main character in the wonderful musical Fiddler on the Roof? He was a poor and simple milkman living in a Jewish shtetl on the steppes of Eastern Europe — with five daughters to marry off! Tevye dreams of being rich, and in his famous song — “If I were a rich man” — he fantasizes about all the exciting things he would do, and all the extravagant things he would buy — if only he were rich. Then comes the final verse:

“If I were rich, I’d have the time I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the Holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
And that would be the sweetest thing of all.”

Tevye had it right. By all means go and make it big in the commercial world. Material progress is good for society, and business is a commendable calling if that’s what you want to do. But like Tevye, you must have some aim in mind beyond just a second hummer or a third vacation home. It doesn’t have to be religion, or the joy of intellectual pursuits, such as Tevye wished for. But it does have to be something that is true, that is lasting, and that really moves you. Something that will lure you out of the stale air of that infernal candy store and back into the verdant oasis.

Second, you must believe in others. How narrow and crabbed is his or her life who lives in a cocoon, never trusting another human being to be on your side. Keep your friendships in good repair – especially those you have made here at King’s among those who know you best, your bad side as well as your good.

At the Inverary Inn at Baddeck, in Cape Breton, there’s an old Nova Scotia sampler hanging on the parlour wall. It says this:

“Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor to measure words, but pouring them all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful, friendly hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of comfort, blow the rest gently away.”

Third, and last, believe in yourself. This is the hardest one of all. For we say, “Those other people — they’re all so much smarter, so much more accomplished than I!” But listen to the wisdom of the world’s greatest statesman of the second half of the 20th century:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

“Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world.

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.

“We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of god that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people the permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Nelson Mandela, Inaugural Speech, As President of South Africa, 1994

Now, it has been said that every good cake must have a theme. So must a speech. So come back into the candy shop with me and consider the cake I have just baked up especially for you. I have said, believe in something beyond yourself, something big and substantial; that’s the basic “bready” part on the bottom. Then, believe in others; that’s the chocolate sauce smothered over the cake. Finally, believe in yourself; that’s the candle on the top. I invite you to eat my cake, if you find it appealing. But not in the candy store. Eat it outside, in the verdant garden.

And now, my fellow graduates, the old-fashioned Irish wake is over. At last, you are free to get on with the party, and with the rest of your lives.

Good luck!