Temporary Endings and Permanent Beginnings

Dr. Luis M. Proenza
President, The University of Akron
University of Akron, Student Union Ballroom A
April 08, 2014

Thank you, Adam, and may I offer my congratulations to all the inductees to this Pierian Chapter of Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society.

Thank you for inviting me, and thank you all for coming this afternoon.

For reasons that will become apparent in just a few moments, the title of my lecture today is “Temporary Endings & Permanent Beginnings.”

You see, it is likely that human nature and the impermanence of individual life causes us to focus on the ending of things, rather than on their beginnings.  Too often we ascribe a sense of finality to endings and even consider beginnings as simply the start to the ending of things. 

But the reality is that, once a thing is begun, it cannot be un-begun.  It can be stopped, it can be delayed, it can be transformed, it can be completed – indeed, a beginning must evolve into something else if we are to be productive and successful.

And the entire chain of events – beginnings, middle and endings – all is part of the process we know as change.  And although we may be resistant to it, change is essential, it is inevitable, it is the one universal constant.  If we are wise, we learn to embrace change because with it comes opportunity – but perhaps that is too large a topic to deal with this afternoon. I guess I can cover that ground at another time . . . although I wonder if it is possible to do a sequel to a “Last Lecture.”

So let’s get back to beginnings.

We already have established that however you transform a beginning, you cannot roll back time and prevent its occurrence. 

Therefore, beginnings are, in a sense, permanent. 

That is why they are so precious and so powerful. 

Consider that endings, though much-celebrated, are secondary to beginnings. Endings cannot exist independently.  For something to end, it first must have begun. Think in terms of light and darkness.  Darkness is understood by physicists and philosophers alike as merely the absence of light.  It is not a thing unto itself.  You cannot “turn on the dark.” You can only turn off the light. Likewise, you can only end what you have begun.

Still, despite the contingent nature of endings, they have a particular appeal for us.  

Just consider why we are here tonight.  We could address this event as a celebration of a new lecture series. We could focus on the initiative demonstrated by our students in Mortar Board.

But we are intrigued by the word, “Last!”  It has an irrevocable sound to it, almost a tragic bitter-sweetness.  Maybe that is why poets and novelists and screenwriters are so fond of the word.  They speak of a last dance, a last kiss, a last sunset.  You can almost imagine the book jacket or movie poster.

But in day-to-day life, “last” is rarely accurate.  Indeed, you must be a card-carrying pessimist to find much use for it.

As Adam Graf told you earlier, this lecture series is based on a very poignant and popular “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.  In 2006 Dr. Pausch received from his physicians a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer.  He was informed he had only 3 to 6 months of good health left.  On September 19th, 2007 he gave his famous “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon, a video of which went viral on YouTube.[i]

And yet, after his “Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch kept right on talking!

He did several media appearances, testified before Congress on behalf of pancreatic cancer research, returned to Carnegie Mellon to give another lecture at commencement, and then co-authored a book titled, “The Last Lecture,” which became a New York Times best seller.[ii]

On July 25th, 2008, this busy, optimistic, inspiring man finally succumbed to the disease that had claimed him.  Randy Pausch had given his last lecture.

Or had he?

As English author Terry Prachett so elegantly wrote, “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

The biological manifestation of Randy Pausch is no more, but his thoughts, his concepts, his influence are quite alive today and appear to have a very promising future!  For example, I give a copy of his book to each of our student responders at every commencement, so believe me when I say that his is a lecture that keeps on being given.

The Impermanence of Endings

The fact is that endings are somewhat illusory. 

While a beginning cannot be undone, endings most certainly can.  The simple word, “resume,” exposes the alleged finality of endings for the illusion that they are.

Let’s look at an immediate, simple example: many of you fine members of Mortar Board soon will cross the stage as part of commencement.  I am sure a significant number of you has had enough of finals, papers, practicums and clinicals.  I know that you are looking forward to that day next month when your education finally comes to an end.

Oh really?

OK, you might say, my “college” education will come to an end.

At the risk of being redundant, I say again, “Oh really?”

In today’s global, knowledge-driven economy, do you really think you can afford not to gain new knowledge?

It may come in traditional forms, like getting an MBA or some other graduate degree, it may be a certificate earned through continuing education, or it may well be a MOOC taken online – but additional education there will be.

No, graduation does not mark an end to education, just a type of pause, a transition. That is probably why graduation ceremonies are called commencements.

Let us now consider the impermanence of endings on a much grander, and perhaps even breathtaking scale.

In his fascinating book, “The Universe Within,” Neil Shubin explains how the very atoms that make up each of our bodies can be traced back to the Big Bang.[iii]   The molecules that are so busy right now with the myriad tasks needed to keep us alive were also present during the formation and maturation of the Earth.[iv]

Bill Bryson shared a similar idea in his book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” I quote:

“… the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do (so) elsewhere.  Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry, life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements – nothing you wouldn't find in any ordinary drugstore – and that's all you need.  The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you.  That is, of course the miracle of life."[v]  

For me, the realization that the stuff of which we are made is, in a very real sense, immortal, is an awe-inspiring concept.  It can be said that we are only borrowing the atoms that make up our bodies.  The components of these self-same atoms existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we are gone.  There is no “ending” for them.

And what lucky atoms these are!  They could be many other things, but instead of contributing to a rock formation here, or to a stick of wood there, these atoms have the great good fortune and high honor of being a part of …you!  Or You!

Or you, Adam.  You have the stuff of asteroids and dinosaurs in your bones!

As do we all.

Someone named George Wald, a Nobel-prize winning chemist and biologist, addressed this concept in a very powerful and beautiful way, and I want to share it with you.  This is what he said:

"Surely this is a great part of our dignity…

That we can know, and that through us matter can know itself;

That beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space…

We can begin to understand;

That organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water and sunlight –

All, having become us – can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."[vi]

Let me repeat that because it is worth savoring; it is worth pondering:

"Surely this is a great part of our dignity…

That we can know, and that through us matter can know itself;

That beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space…

We can begin to understand;

That organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water and sunlight –

All, having become us – can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."

So, how is it that we can grasp these kind of lofty, and poetical complexities of our being as articulated by George Wald, and still be fooled by the illusory notion of endings?

Perhaps one of the reasons we have trouble appreciating the true, transitory nature of endings and the permanence of beginnings is because they often so easily blend one into another.  Even when we think the boundaries are clear-cut, they are not.

Let me give you a personal example of what I mean.

As a young professional working in Washington D.C., I happened to walk across a traffic circle that I had driven around many times, but never noticed within it a statue of man.  

As I walked by, I discovered it was a statue of Benito Juarez, the first president of Mexico, which happens to be where I as born. And inscribed on the plaque was something that Juarez had said back in 1810, and suddenly, my mind was filled with memories of my childhood and the history I had studied.

You see, on that plaque was a statement that every schoolchild in Mexico learns, just as in this country all learn the Pledge of Allegiance.

Let me recite it for you:

“El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz – Respect for the rights of others is peace.”[vii]

“El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz – Respect for the rights of others is peace.”

That simple, powerful statement has inspired many discussions and interpretations.  For our purposes today, we can see it as representative of the blurred line between endings and beginnings.

Whether you are talking of nations or neighbors, peace actually emerges earlier than we often think.  Peace does not begin with the signing of a treaty or a handshake.  Peace appears and begins to grow as soon as our actions cause intolerance and disrespect to falter and evaporate.  In this case, the endpoint of one and the beginning of the other is less important than our commitment to seeing the process continue until we have achieved real respect for the rights of others.  Then we may enjoy the benefits of peace in all its aspects.

The transition period between an ending and a beginning can be obscure, but only because endings are by their nature so often indistinct and temporary. Beginnings, on the other hand, are more easily identified and defined because beginnings start with an action.

Speculations and cogitations, planning and dreaming, all of these are fine foundational work for beginnings.  But they remain mere intangibles without substance until we take action. 

And that leads me to my last point.  The power of beginnings.

In my 15 years with you at this university, I have repeated a particular quote countless times.  As someone once observed, if your message is important you must repeat it over and over, because communication is akin to talking to a parade; no sooner that you have said it, you have to say it again for the next and the next and the next.  

So to our students who are relatively recent arrivals to campus, this will sound new. To many of my colleagues who’ve been her a little longer, you’ve heard it so many times; feel free to join in if you’ve memorized the words as I recite these lines from the great German poet Goethe:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now.”

And so …

…to you, the members of Mortar Board and the other seniors here who soon will graduate, I say this is not your last year at The University of Akron, but the beginning of your relationship as alumni of this institution…

…to my colleagues, when you find yourselves – as I do now – at a turning point in your career, recall the phoenix that graces the seal of our University, and do not see in your transition the last glimmer of past endeavors, but the creative sparks that will ignite new chapters in your lives…

…and finally, if you think this is my last lecture, either as president or an educator…

Sorry to disappoint you!

Thank you, and good afternoon.

[i] Randy Pausch biography, IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2903501/bio

[ii] IMDb, ibid.

[iii] Shubin, Neal. The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People. Pantheon Books, division of Random House Inc., New York, NY. 2013.

[iv] Kean, Same. “Seeing Ourselves in a Grain of Sand.” January 11, 2013. The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323936804578227662261445542.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[v] Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003.

[vi] Wald, George, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3

[vii] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/53064-entre-los-individuos-como-entre-las-naciones-el-respeto-al


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