Addressing the members of the Class of 2015 at the beginning their college experience, Hope College faculty member Dr. Marc Baer asked that they remember to look beyond themselves for wisdom as they spend the next four years improving the self within.
"We often have to reach outside ourselves in order to grow inwardly," said Baer, a professor of history and chairperson of the department, during the college's Opening Convocation on Sunday, Aug. 28, in the Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse. "Consider the necessity of simultaneously turning inward for strength and outward for tools."
Approximately 2,000, primarily new students and their families, attended the event, which marked the formal beginning of the college's 150th academic year and of the final school year in the presidency of Dr. James E. Bultman, who is retiring at the end of June 2012. The new students moved in on Friday and returning students began moving in on Sunday. Fall semester classes start on Tuesday.
Baer titled his address "Invictus," Latin for "Unconquered," the title of an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley in which the narrator celebrates remaining strong despite adversity. Henley had lost a leg to tuberculosis as a teen, and endured additional hardship later in life due to the disease. Baer noted that the title is also shared by - and the poem prominent in - the 2009 film "Invictus," in which South African President Nelson Mandela hopes to have the 1995 rugby World Cup help foster racial reconciliation in the aftermath of apartheid. Portrayed by Morgan Freeman, Mandela relates how the poem inspired him to avoid bitterness even across nearly 30 years in prison.
"In his case, while in prison, Mandela turned to someone who was free, of a different race, a different time and a different country," Baer said. "In an important way he was following Solomon's advice: 'Get wisdom! Get understanding before anything else' (Proverbs 4:7). Having reached outward, Mandela was able to nurture an inward commitment to reconciliation."
The students, he said, could find such understanding in many places.
He cited the example of author Mildred Armstrong Kalish, who as she grew older came to appreciate how her grandparents had helped shape her, through sayings like "It's easier to keep up than to catch up" and "Use it up; wear it out; make it do; do without."
"Kalish absorbed these lessons about managing yourself, looking back realizing her character was being built from the day she was born - 'improving one's mind' constituting 'the essential focus of our lives,'" Baer said. "Here's the takeaway: when you return home for Thanksgiving, take your grandparents out for coffee and ask them to teach you, and then as Mildred Armstrong Kalish did, use their teaching to work on your interior."
He told of his former student "Susan," who through a strong Christian faith overcame the challenges of poverty and a broken home, and as a graduate is committed to helping others as she found her faith and faith community helped her. He also recalled "Ryan," who because of a high school injury couldn't participate in college basketball as he'd planned - and thus became a physical therapist, to help others who'd gone through what he had. "And so years later when a middle-aged college professor forgot that he wasn't a construction worker and injured his shoulder he was able to go to Ryan, who healed him," Baer said.
All of the stories, he said, "teach us not to be afraid to turn outward so as to work on our interiors."
"So during the next four years think about holding firmly to your most deeply-held values while allowing your mind to be fully open to learn new things," Baer said. "Be especially careful not to restrict that mind to the present, or, as C.S. Lewis tells us, you'll be the most provincial of people, majoring in the ephemeral and missing the eternal."