Following is a transcript of the Opening Chapel Talks I gave this morning after welcoming the boys back to school:
Ralph Waldo Emerson once mused, “All are needed by each one; nothing is fair or good alone.”
When Emerson spoke these words, I believe he was talking about community—our need to feel needed, connected, a part of something greater than ourselves. Sometimes we may think we have “a community” when the people around us believe exactly what we believe, or value only what we value; when they look the same as we look, or sound the same as we sound. But it isn’t necessarily so.
This summer, I found myself traveling in the deserts of the American West—Nevada, California, Arizona, and Utah. The Navajo, the aboriginal people of this region, struck me. They were completely at one with the land and everyone had their roles to play, something specific to do. They didn’t all try to be or do the same; in fact, they recognized and celebrated their differences. Seeking peace and harmony with each other, with themselves, and with their place in the world, was their goal.
While traveling, I was also reading a book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It told the story of the “white-man’s” movement West back in the 1800s from the Native American perspective. Understanding and appreciating difference was the antithesis of this story. Instead, ignorance and prejudice were its main characters. It was such a vivid contrast; a contradiction, in such a beautiful land--one group building, constructing community, the other destroying it.
Last week I took a group of teachers and administrators downtown to experience an orchestra. Not the way you usually experience an orchestra. We sat in it, amongst the musicians, and we watched and listened closely to all the different sounds members of the orchestra and groups within the orchestra made. The sound of the violins was completely different from that of the trumpets, which in turn was even more different than the sound of the cellos, the percussion section, the violas, and different still, were the voices of the chorus.
At one point we listened to the range of sounds that a violin can make across 4 strings—thinking it was the most incredible instrument, so much better than the “single string” sound of the vocal chord of a singer, until the conductor showed us the incredible versatility of that single vocal chord. One could not be the other. When the violinist tried to reproduce the sound of the voice, she couldn’t. When the vocalist tried to reproduce the sound of the violin, he couldn’t. Each was unique and incredible, with its own piece to contribute.
Experiencing the orchestra at the end of my summer, I couldn’t help but take myself back to the beginning of my summer, back to the desert in Monument Valley, Utah, and the Navajo and the story of the West, and of all the indifference, and compare it to this orchestra.
Like the peoples out West during expansion, none of the people in the orchestra were exactly the same. Not only did they play different instruments, at different times, but they all came from different places, families, cultures, experiences, and histories. Despite all these differences, they were able to play beautiful music together because they listened to each other. The members of the orchestra respected the roles and responsibilities of the other players, to a give and take. They were committed to harmony, building something much greater than themselves.
A school can be a great orchestra. Each of us has our own instrument to play. We have our strengths and our weaknesses, our likes and dislikes. We all come from different families, experiences, backgrounds, and traditions. When we all work together to build something greater then ourselves though, to broaden our minds, multiply our skills, and gain an even greater appreciation of the world around us—we too can make great music.
A True Community isn’t something that can simply be wished or hoped for. It has to be built. Like the orchestra rehearsing together, its members must all practice their individual parts over and over again. Whenever they return as a group, each must listen to and respect the other’s part, and work together, repeatedly, with compassion and with kindness. It’s not always easy work; but the payoff is hugely rewarding.
The world has many deserts. They can appear hot, dry, and even inhospitable. This summer, it was in one of these deserts that a Navajo, inside a carved out mesa, serenaded my family with songs of his culture and history. As he pulled us into his music, I had an epiphany, the same one I had listening to the orchestra last week with my colleagues, your teachers: we all crave human interaction, we need to feel connected; but to do so we have to come to terms with our differences, because it’s across these differences that we weave the interconnected web of true community.
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”1
To be a man, a good man, is to be "… among those beings of great scope who spread their leafy branches willingly over broad horizons. To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to know shame at the sight of poverty, which is not of our making. It is to be proud of a victory won by our [friends]. It is to feel, as we place our stone, that we are contributing to the building of the world.”2
Let’s build a true community together.
Notes 1 & 2: Antione de Saint-Exupery. Wind, Sand, and Stars. New York: Harcourt, 2002