Variations on the Theme of Limitlessness – National Cathedral School Commencement Address
Dr. Scully, Mr. Moran, Members of the NCS Governing Board, NCS Faculty and Administrators, Distinguished Guests, Parents, Family Members and Friends, I’m honored to be among you and to have the honor of speaking to the NCS graduation class of 2022.
Since the day Dr. Scully asked me to be your commencement speaker, I’ve been pondering the word that as a class you feel best expresses your collective approach to life: limitless.
It’s such a great word, and closely related to another word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately–courage–and specifically how we learn courage, how we learn to be brave. So I’d like to reflect with you about three different experiences of limitlessness and courage. No doubt there are more than three, but these rose to the surface for me as I thought of you.
Here’s the thing: you already know everything I am about to say. My hope is that by hearing me say what you already know, it might help you remember whenever you find yourself in one of those circumstances that cause you to doubt what you know. It happens to all of us, and when it does, it’s good to have images and words in your head to help you come back to yourself. If I do my job here reasonably well, something of what I say might be one of those reminders for you.
Limitless experience number one: when you’re at the top of your game and you know it. It’s an amazing feeling, for you have every confidence that you have what it takes to meet a particular challenge, cross a given barrier, or accomplish a specific task. The task itself can be large or small; it can be something you’re really excited about or something you dread. Whatever it is, you know that you can do it. In some instances–surely the most important–you have the sense that you must do it, and you’re ready.
I’m reminded here of a scene from the film that came out last year about the rise of Venus and Serena Wiliams, King Richard. Most of the film, as you know, focuses on their dad and how he raised and coached them. And as fascinating as Will Smith’s portrayal is of their dad, I couldn’t take my eyes off the girls–how hard they worked at their game, how they loved and supported each other, and at key moments, how they each stepped up with self-assurance.
In one scene, a prospective coach asks Venus, “I know what your dad wants. But what do you want?” Venus replies, “I want to win Wimbledon as many times as anyone’s ever won it.” Taken aback, he says, “You think you can do that?” Without hesitation, she says “I know I can.” The coach then turns to Serena, “And what about you? Who on the tour do you want to play like?” Serena answers,” Well I’d like other people to want to play like me.” While that kind of confidence can sound arrogant, it didn’t as they spoke it. They were simply clear. And they were ready.
You know as well as I that that kind of self-assurance doesn’t drop out of the sky, nor is it a house you can build on sand. It’s the result of natural aptitude combined with tons of practice and skill building, a few lucky breaks, and the sweet sense of serendipity that puts you in a certain place at just the right time to cross whatever threshold is before you. There’s also risk involved–that for all the confidence you feel, you may not cross it this time. But the risk doesn’t stop you, nor does failure. As the former leader of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, used to say in regards to her commitment to end child poverty in this country (a compelling goal worth giving your life to): “Better to fail at something worth doing than to succeed in mediocrity.” That, incidentally, is one of my reminders.
Which brings me to limitless experience number two, on the other end of the experiential spectrum: when you’re up against a limit and you don’t have what it takes to cross it. Again, it could be anything, but the inner realization is the same. No matter how many times you say the word limitless, in this particular circumstance, you are up against a wall that you cannot climb and you know it.
Part of this is simply facing the humbling reality of the distance between your aspirations and current capabilities. As the writer James Clear once wrote, “It’s always easier to recognize beauty than to create it.”
Ira Glass is a name you might recognize (I’m pretty sure that most of your parents know who he is). For nearly 30 years he’s been the host of a public radio show and now a podcast called This American Life. He once reflected upon the artistic experience that rings true for all worthwhile endeavors, whenever you come up against your current limitations. He said this:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story (Or whatever it is you’re working on). It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.1
Again, I know that you know this, given all that you’ve already done to close the gap between your vision and your capacities. But it’s unlikely that you’ve peaked at 18, which means that your aspirations are still higher than your abilities, as they should be. It might be helpful to remember that this is to be expected as you face into the gap time again and again and plow on.
A word to those of you who feel a call to leadership of any kind: You also already know that challenge isn’t only that of your personal limitations but also those of the group, or organization, community, or nation that you’re trying to lead.
The leader’s task varies according to the size of the gap between the vision and the group’s capacity, not to mention the collective will to do the work. You’ve got that balance between creating a sense of urgency without succumbing to despair. Beware of despair and its sister emotion, cynicism–your own or anyone else’s. Nothing kills collective motivation quicker, for it takes absolutely no energy whatsoever to be despairing or cynical. But to be creative and hopeful in challenging times, as well as being painstakingly honest and self-reflective and accountable to the vision entrusted to you–that takes effort, and it’s what makes a leader.
Now to the third, and final experience of limitlessness that I’ll mention today, by far the most humbling–and the most personally transformative. This is where faith comes in. By faith, I mean the willingness to entrust ourselves to the spiritual realm that exists both within, among and beyond us that in our limited understandings we name with words like “God,” or “Creator,” or “Higher Power,” and that through the traditions, stories and pracitices of religious traditions such as Christianity or Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, we gain insights for living beyond what we can adequately express or understand. I speak as a Christian–others speak in the language of their tradition or worldview–but the mystery we’re attempting to name is common to all.
This third experience of limitlessness is when the limit prevails, be it in the form of a goal we will never reach. Our path has been blocked by something outside of our control. It could be an illness–ours or someone else’s– an accident, or a tragedy of epic proportions such as what we have experienced in the last two years and continue to witness far too frequently across the nation and the world. It could be a conflict that we cannot resolve or a problem that we cannot fix.
In these instances, it doesn’t help to tell yourself that if you had just tried harder, you could have prevailed in the ways you once hoped or imagined you could. It certainly isn’t helpful to blame yourself, to drown in a self-inflicted sea of shame or to accept others’ attempts to shame or belittle you. This is the time to be your own best friend.
And what do you do then? Here all great wisdom and spiritual traditions say the same thing: let go. Let go, and as they say in 12-step spirituality, and let God.
Letting go can take many forms, none of them involving giving up.
I’ll describe one way by way of a story from the Christian Scriptures. There was a day when Jesus and his disciples had gone to a remote location in order to rest, but a large and needy crowd followed them. Jesus had compassion upon the crowd, and he and the disciples worked from sunup to sundown tending to the people’s needs.
At the end of the day, the now exhausted disciples turned to Jesus and stated the obvious–that the hour was late, the people were hungry, and as they had no food to offer, it was time for Jesus to send the crowd away. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he asks the disciples what food they had to offer. All we have is a few loaves of bread and some fish, they told him, but what is that among so many? Bring them to me, Jesus said. Jesus took their loaves and fish, offered thanks to God, gave them back to the disciples for them to distribute among the people. There was sufficient food for everyone to have their fill with baskets left over.
Now that’s a fantastic tale, I know, and improbable on so many levels. Yet I, for one, live my life inside it every day. For its invitation is clear: even when you know that what you have to give isn’t enough, offer it anyway. Even when you know that you can’t accomplish on your own what needs to be done, do what you can. Even when you don’t have enough love, or kindness, or money, or food to make a lasting difference in someone’s life, give what you have anyway.
Sometimes God shows up in the gap between what we have to give and what’s needed, and makes up the difference. I don’t know how that happens; I only know that sometimes it does, not always, but enough to make the effort worthwhile. The experience of being met in that space by a power and a presence takes your inadequate offering and provides through it what is needed instills within you a different kind of courage and confidence–not in yourself, but in God’s providence and grace.
You can go a long way on that kind of experience, because you realize that you’re not alone, and everything doesn’t depend on you. The more you live from that place of faith, the more you encourage others to do the same, which may have been what happened on the day when the disciples offered what they had. Maybe they inspired others to give what little they had, too, and as a result, all had enough.
Another way of letting go is to accept the limit you cannot cross and take it in as part of your reality. This is really hard, and it should only be a last resort, when you’ve done everything you can think of and there’s nothing left but to accept what you cannot change.
Over time, what acceptance does is enable you to grow large enough inside to take in what you cannot change, and not be completely defined by it. It’s part of you, but it’s not all of you, and life goes on. The narrative of your life–the arc of it–now contains this limit, but you are no longer limited by it in the same way. It becomes part of your offering to the world. This is not easy, and it takes time and struggle and the mysterious alchemy that in religious language we call grace–God’s gift of mercy and transforming power.
Let me leave you with an image of what that kind of acceptance and letting go and taking it in can look like. It’s from another film from last year that won the Academy Award for Best Picture: CODA. It tells the story of a 17-year-old girl named Ruby, the only hearing person in her family. All her life she’s felt like an outcast in school, and at home she serves as primary negotiator for her family’s fishing business. When we first meet Ruby, we also learn that she loves to sing and secretly wants to pursue her dream of being a singer.
Through the film we watch Ruby struggle between her loyalty to her family and her dream, until she finally decides that it’s too hard and she has to let the dream go. But then her family, her teacher, and the very sweet boy she has a crush on all encourage her to go ahead and audition to be accepted into a music conservatory. So she goes, and we watch as she falls apart on stage. Her teacher, who is accompanying her on the piano, pretends to make a mistake and asks if they can both start again.
Then we see Ruby’s moment of acceptance and transcendence as she decides to sing and sign in ASL. She’s no longer trying to escape from the pain, the struggle, the in-betweenness of her life; instead she takes it in and makes it part of her artistic offering.
You are the National Cathedral School graduating class of 2022: you have been educated here by a wondrous community guided in its belief in your power as young women. Your power is a wonder to behold, and we celebrate you.
But they, and I, also believe in something more, a different kind of power. We believe that there is grace and mercy and strength that will sustain and guide you–cheering you on as you cross countless thresholds, there for you in the slog of hard work and necessary failures, and at the ready to help you grow large enough inside to transform the limits you cannot overcome and make them part of your creative offering.
Don’t ever imagine that you are alone, because you’re not. The Spirit of God working in you will indeed accomplish far more than you could ask for or imagine, with a power that is truly limitless. To that grace and power, we entrust you now.