In the conclusion of Walden, first published in 1884, Henry David Thoreau writes, "It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived [at Walden Pond] a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct... The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of [humans]; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!"
Thoreau is using a metaphor. For me, metaphor has never been something that we, as users of language, create, so much as it is something that we locate; some congruity between aspects of the tangible, intelligible, or spiritual realms that we nod to and say, "oh, this... is like that." In that passage, Thoreau nods to the ancient relationship between landscape and mindscape; he posits that the well-worn paths we walk, in turn, manifest in habitual movements of the mind. In the individual, this repetition can be called tendency, habit, or just "the way that I am"; but, when many individuals with their many thoughts walk these same paths over the course of time, tradition, as Thoreau suggests, is born.
Considering that records of written language exist dating as far back as 4000 B.C. Mesopotamia - and with systems of spoken language extending infinitely farther back in time still - to avoid any sort of tradition altogether is a bit of a tall order. As crucial as the pursuit of originality is in the development of the self, there comes a time in life for most of us in which we must realize that the paths we walk are not, in fact, wholly our own. Whether we navigate a forest trail blazed just six months before or unknowingly trace the migration corridor traveled by a herd of deer for the last 100,000 years, we walk in the wake of history; so, too, do our thoughts.
"For better or for worse, this mountain of collective knowledge - at once wonderful and terrible - follows us into the future each and every day."
In my eyes, the greatest difference between the human animal and every other species with whom we share the earth comes with the concept of inheritance: a truly incredible notion. We humans—an infant species in the grand scheme of things—have seamlessly and universally learned the art of leaving things behind. From the pyramids at Giza to a biology textbook, from a family recipe to a nuclear bomb, we live, learn, grow, fight, and love one another on the sprawling foundation of our ancestors. For better or for worse, this mountain of collective knowledge - at once wonderful and terrible - follows us into the future each and every day. Such opportunity makes right now - wherever, whenever, and whomever you are - the perfect time to make a choice. And whichever paths we may choose to follow into the future, taking the time to understand what has been left behind for us - a pursuit we call a liberal arts education - can help us to make that choice deliberately. And this is essential, for in order to live deliberately, we have to learn deliberately as well.
Returning to Thoreau's metaphor again, we encounter, contained within the liberal arts, an entire universe of traditions. In picking a line of study, we choose a path to walk; and, with purpose, we proceed. Following in the footsteps of countless others before, you and I learn of the complexities of language, the crisscrossing narratives of history, or the sacred geometry of calculus. We come to name the constellations, comprehend evolution, or identify the archetypes of heaven, hell, here, and beyond. And though you and I may engage the same tradition, though we may read the same books, and we may walk the same path together, ultimately, what you notice, and what I notice along the way will always be two very different things. And when we turn and speak to one another about this long, strange path we're on, we will teach each other even more. It is the conversations that are important; the conversations and the questions that keep them going for years and years and years. Answers begin where the imagination ends. I think we all learn here, in this great big web of paths, that there are greater pleasures to be had than those of assurance, and safety, and precision. An answer is an end; but an inquiry? Well, that is just one more step to enjoy.
"There is no cultivation of the mind without nurturing the body and the soul as well. And I believe with all three parts of my being that this is our true nature - no more and no less sacred than every other being around us; but only when we gladly surrender to it."
We must be careful as well as curious. Be careful, and be mindful, for in the dense jungle of an education, there lurks a duality. It is one half humility and one half conceit. It is a strange creature made of arrogance and of modesty - and whichever path we travel in this place, we will encounter it. And it just so happens that this crossroads, too, is just a matter of deliberation - a matter of making a choice. In this wonderful place, we can feed our minds, or we can feed our egos. We can learn pretension and vanity, or adopt empathy and patience. We can instill a distorted sense of entitlement, or we can surrender to the beauty of deep, and immeasurable gratitude.
At this crossroads, we will choose. We may close ourselves off from the world, or we may open ourselves way up and revel in the vastness of the universe, acknowledging just how wonderfully small we are; reminding ourselves that, in the midst of creation, we are children, eternally - always young, always compassionate, and always curious. There is no cultivation of the mind without nurturing the body and the soul as well. And I believe with all three parts of my being that this is our true nature - no more and no less sacred than every other being around us; but only when we gladly surrender to it. So, I want to ask: why refuse it? Why refuse it when we could be happy instead? Why not forget getting rich, forget the social status, forget the awards, and the titles, the power, and the "success"? I say, let's be happy instead. Let's drink as deeply of this chance as possible - this chance to love one another, and to be grateful. Let's suck the proverbial marrow out of life as if it were a sacrament… because it is.
This essay is derived from an address Alex Dugan '14 gave at the Dean's Reception in April 2014.