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Reflections on Living

  • Date: 08/25/2007
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Well, you made it, and today we honor you and celebrate your accomplishment.

    For many of you, as part of this celebration, a graduation gift likely will be a small book selected with great care and often a favorite of those who give it, hoping that the book's message speaks as clearly to you as it does to them.

    For those friends and relatives of graduates who are still looking for that last-minute gift, some of my favorites include, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran; A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen, which, by the way, I give to our student responders; and, of course, there is that all-time Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, The Places You'll Go.

    Not so long ago, another favorite of mine appeared in the form of Richard Bode's First You Have to Row a Little Boat.

    The title drew my attention to the bookstore shelf because I am, at heart, a sailor who finds great energy in the aesthetic combination of wind, water and sail. For me, sailing does take me away to where I am going. And what I found was that the book uses those sailing metaphors to capture the basic principles of living exceptionally well.

    Our lives are filled with sailing metaphors. Some of the more familiar include: Learn the ropes; Take the helm; In the doldrums; Even keel; or not so good, "Keel over."

    Richard Bode based his book on the everyday experiences of growing up on Long Island Sound - experiences which ultimately were the formative aspects of his life.

    Eager to learn to sail, Bode was told by a seasoned and somewhat legendary sea captain that before he could sail, he first had to learn how to row a little boat.

    And as our author soon discovered, the resulting lessons went far beyond the nautical.

    "...Under the captain's tutelage," Bode writes, "I acquired a skill which...remains fundamental to my view of the world."
    (Bode, Richard, First You Have To Row a Little Boat; Reflections on Life and Living, New York, 1993, p.11)

    "What I learned wasn't mastery over the elements; it was mastery over myself, which is what conquest is ultimately all about...In life...our victories are almost always the ones we forge alone."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.13-14)

    Without a doubt, navigating the wind and the water quickly exposes our limitations and helps us to develop an acute awareness of the environment; it also gives us an understanding that in our relationship with these elements we have to learn what we can and cannot control if we are to reach our destination.

    According to Bode, "...we (as humans) live with the constant presumption of dominion. We believe that we own the world, that it belongs to us, that we have it under our firm control. But the sailor knows all too well the fallacy of this view."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.3)

    "The hurricane, the typhoon, the tsunami, the sudden squall - they are all sharp reminders of (our)...puniness...when measured against the momentous forces of nature. We aren't in total charge of our fate..."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.3)

    "Day-to-day life is like the wind in all its infinite variations and moods. The wind is shifting, constantly shifting, sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes sad. As the sailor sails his winds, so we must sail our moods."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.4)

    In our daily lives, our migrations won't always have "...the fluency of the sailor. Time flips us rapidly from place to place and role to role...Each milieu has its own conventions and makes its own demands. Sometimes the changes occur so fast we lose our bearings...We lack a sure sense of the appropriate because we haven't taken the time to figure out where we are."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.12)

    Indeed, finding our way requires not just the skills of sailing, but the precise assistance of a navigational mentor.

    "Life is an apprenticeship;" Bode concludes. "...We are standing on the shoulders of giants who helped describe the character of our universe long before we came along."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.181-182)

    "We may like to think we are born knowing all we need to know and that what we don't know will come to us through happenstance. But if we want to learn, truly want to learn, we must break through the protective veneer of false pride and allow the masters of the past and present to enter our lives."
    (Bode, Ibid, p.181-182)

    "We need to find those special people who contain the lore of the race and can pass along what we yearn to know. They may be individuals we meet personally in the classroom or the shipyard or the office down the hall. Or they may be individuals we never meet and never can meet because they belong to another age - although we know them (very) well by the works they left behind."
    (Bode, Ibid, p. 182)

    Each of you has had someone who has made a difference in your life: a relative...a good friend...a faculty member.

    Most likely it has been many individuals who created a tapestry of influence that has guided you, and who will be there for you as you set sail on future adventures. They have provided that inner spark that helped you earn your degree at The University of Akron and the privilege to walk across this stage.

    As you move forward, however, please understand that not everything in life is smooth sailing. Storms and setbacks will occur, but they have much to teach you.

    My hope for you is that you will pursue your future as diligently as you have pursued getting to this day of commencement.

    In the words of the German author Goethe who, indeed, is a mentor speaking from another age: "Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now!"

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