|The day – that awful day – crashed into us on September 11, 2001. The President of Wake Forest University, Thomas, K. Hearn, gave a speech during a memorial service in Wait Chapel, the campus spire-adorned beacon of hope and everything the institution stands for.
To help the community recover from the unspeakable tragedies of that dismal day, the president told a story about a Shakespeare class he recalled from his undergraduate days at Birmingham-Southern College. The professor told the young Hearn and the other students that Shakespeare’s tragedies gain critical acclaim as more superior works of art compared with his comedies.
“Why is that?” Hearn asked.
“The professor started to reply, but then paused,” says Hearn in his speech. “That pause lengthened into one of those compelling silences, louder than shouts, which seem to last an eternity. The room was utterly still. The professor paced the floor and looked out the window. Finally, he turned to me with an expression on his face that revealed that these were words from his heart and soul: ‘Because, Mr. Hearn, life is more tragic than comic.’ ”
“There was another pause before the class continued,” Hearn says in the speech. “It was a moment I shall never forget. You will encounter the realities of good and evil, achievement and failure, faith, and despair. The world’s story is told in both comedy and tragedy, in laughter and tears. But you must not let yourselves be overcome by evil lest you become its agent. We must recover, and we will. We must resolve to see the triumph of justice, and we will. We must overcome evil and hate with goodness and – pray God – we will.”
The story President Hearn told during this moment in American history captures the serious and cerebral tone of this book of essays he wrote while President of Wake Forest University from 1983 through 2005.
“Leaves From a President’s Notebook: Lessons on Life and Leadership” was posthumously published by his son, Thomas K. Hearn III. His father, who wrote the book of essays, died in 2008.
Reading this book about the man who was the president of Wake Forest while I was there as an undergraduate ignited my thinking about my days at the university, what I learned, what it all meant, and how I see my life looking backward. As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I remember him giving talks to the students that made me think “this guy’s serious, deep, and admirable,” but I didn’t quite understand the depth and importance of his insights.
Yet like Hearn, I took a memorable undergraduate Shakespeare class my last semester senior year taught by Professor Doyle Fosso, who dripped raw passion for Shakespeare’s words and mind. The class was in one sense straightforward: read and analyze 12 Shakespeare plays; yet in another, it was intellectually mind-expanding and emotionally sobering, a deep examination of one greater writer’s mind.
We read Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. Fosso told us about them. We sat, listened, thought, and became stunned by the sadness and depth of peoples’ lives. It was a classical college intellectual experience.
Macbeth and Hamlet messed up their lives. Don’t we all? You could not come away from that class without a keen and disturbing understanding of the evil that people can do in pursuit of fame, power, riches, and chasing false gods. Who hasn’t? I had no idea then that I would witness over the next 35 some years these kinds of people in work situations and in social neighborhood groups and even at grade school football games. Even more embarrassing and unattractive, at times I have been one of those less-than-admirable, poorly-behaved people. In my heart looms some Macbeth and Hamlet yearnings. Yours too, maybe.
What Hearn’s professor shared with him that day in class, that life is more tragic than comic, has at least some truth to it. 9/11 happened. Utter and absolute tragedy beyond belief. Plenty of other tragedies happen every day all over the world.
But life is also comical each day across all of the Earth, somewhere. Go to YouTube and watch comedian Jim Gaffigan’s standup skits. Hilarious stuff. So uplifting it is to listen to Jim talk about the silliness of so many everyday things. He eases the pains of life we all feel.
The point here, however, is not to numerically compare the number of life’s tragedies versus comedies. It’s to recognize and accept both exist. And to do something with your life that is positive and not evil. At least strive to.
Even our super-intellectually inclined Doyle Fosso – I recall all these years later – found wit in his heart and unleashed it. For our final exam, he penned one question worded something like this: “Trace the psychological and emotional development of Shakespeare’s mind in his tragedies and comedies based on the 12 plays we’ve learned about this semester.”
He left the room. Re-entering the doorway five minutes later he socked us with this smiling with glee: “Not done yet?” No, we were not done. College students will never be done tracing the mind of Shakespeare. That’s a never-ending voyage with no destination.
In a similar way, I never am done thinking about the impact that attending Wake Forest had on my life, my thinking, my zeal for knowledge, my futile desire to become smarter, my countless failures especially academic misfirings and mountains of wrong answers on exams.
What I learned at Wake Forest cannot be summarized in one article or even one book, not even after having had a lifetime to reflect on it as I have. There was too much that was absorbed and forgotten, too much I did wrong, too much errant and sketchy preparation, too many low grades, too much procrastination and insecurity and intellectual inferiority to fight against personally, too much worry I would never graduate, too many serendipitous educational surprises.
None more so than my experience taking Introduction to Art History my sophomore year. On the mid-term exam, I scored 59 – the lowest in the class of over 40 students. I was headed full-throttle towards an F in Art History. Who needs that?
Scared of telling my Dad I had failed a class, I opened the textbook and start reading and taking notes and memorizing and reading more. And more. And more. Two weeks before the final exam I knew everything that would be on the test. Never was I more prepared for any exam.
Acing the final, I got a B for the course. But it wasn’t the solid grade that was the most important and lasting of all Wake Forest educational insights. More importantly, I came to realize to my surprise, that I learned how artists think, that what they paint is an expression of how they’re feeling, their emotions, and what’s bothering or enthralling them. I learned something about art that I never fathomed when I started the course. Memorizing facts about paintings wasn’t as important as why someone created the painting. This gave me the courage to dedicate my life to being an artist, and a writer, because, quite simply, it was in my heart. It was my truth. It was what I felt I should do.
The unexpected experiences, the contradictions we encounter in life, the lows of failure, and the ecstasy of achieving, of learning something about the world that makes you forever see and appreciate it in a new way that enriches your soul — every bit of that epitomized Wake Forest for me. Contradictions begetting more contradictions and accepting this vexing and perplexing reality. Hearn writes about this idea in his book with poignancy and the aroma of truth.
“Nothing is purely good or evil. Each experience in life is a mixture, of blessing and curse, risk and opportunity. Each thing contains the seed of its opposite, just as love contains the seed of jealousy and anger. Fear can generate courage. Guilt contains the origin of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
I became a writer, which is a curse and blessing. At times it feels lonely and pointless, at others the perfect way to spend my life doing and leaving my humble mark. Coming out of Wake Forest, I feared becoming a writer because I didn’t think I could make enough money to survive and because I didn’t think I would be good enough for anyone to spend time reading me. I didn’t believe I was smart enough to write anything anyone would want to read.
But choosing writing has been my greatest act of courage. I did it even though it scared and worried me. In so doing I learned contradictions can lead to important discoveries about what insecurities we’re willing to and capable of, tolerating. I’ve found out what we can become, and how we can keep two conflicting ideas in our minds and still choose one. Become a writer even though you don’t have any demonstrated talent to do so.
We all have college journeys. They’re personalized and different. Some people excel. Some get lost. For the most part, I got lost. But I did find a few things. There it is again – the contradiction.
Amid my chaotic mental condition, I somehow found a kernel of hope: to become a writer. It seemed impossible. But my dream came true. I dreamed it, in a sense, and I didn’t want to do it for money or financial security. I wanted to do it so I would live a life of non-stop learning and share my thoughts and insights, somehow, with anyone who might be interested, hoping they would gain value from that, or a laugh, or be moved to tears.
Being educated at Wake Forest did all this for me, and it didn’t happen in one class but through the concoction of all of them, a witches brew of mysterious knowledge accumulation: Sociology, Psychology, Art History, Biology, Chemistry, Modern Drama, British Literature, Introduction to Dance, English Composition, Geography, Interpersonal Communications, Theatre. I could list so many others.
All helped me learn about learning, think beyond the facts, transcend the obvious, explore new concepts, synthesize thoughts, and imagine what life could be.
“Education is about dreams,” writes Hearn. “Do not go to college and get a degree and then a job. Pursue your dream. In that pursuit, you will discover your greatest potential and your most unique and remarkable contribution to the world. Do something that no one, not even yourself, believes that you can accomplish.”
Done. Became a writer. Didn’t believe I could pull this off. Surprised myself. That alone feels like a life well lived. Took a chance.
The Wake Forest education I received inspired me to become a learner for the rest of my life. If you told me the day I arrived on the campus that 42 years later I would treasure the opportunity to read a book written by the president when I was there, I would have thought that a foreign idea was not even worthy of further discussion. I didn’t care enough that day what people thought about anything. The world of ideas was not even on my mind. I didn’t know what thinking was.
But something happened on that immaculate campus in Winston-Salem. Classes I took at Wake Forest lit a fire in my mind that has been burning since the day I graduated. Igniting my intellectual life, the university motivated me to strive to do something of value for the world which is this, writing about it.
“There is all the difference between schooling, going to college, and becoming educated, which is the work of a lifetime,” Hearn writes. “Your education will be a function of the degree to which you are transformed by the experience, discovering new sources and resources of academic and personal growth. You must listen to your head and your heart if your life is to be blessed with wisdom. At Wake Forest, the development of reliable values is our most important institutional objective. In college and in life, it matters most what you stand for, what you are committed to, and the ideal by which your life is governed.”
In my life I’ve stood for values I’m not proud of and done plenty of things I wouldn’t want the public to know about. But I’m not all bad. Again, life overflows with contradictions.
I value learning. I value education. I value people. I value insights. I value humor. I value friends. I value family.
I am committed to all of this.
All the while I’m deeply flawed.
I have characteristics that bother people. I have characteristics people admire. I am human. I have character, which doesn’t mean I’m good or bad but rather a person who thinks and does. This article is one example.
“Character is destiny,” writes Hearn. “To be educated is to seek life’s highest good – character that bestows upon us the trust of others. In the architecture of values, intelligence is preceded by goodness.”
Ultimately, I revere good ideas. Silly ideas especially if they make me and others laugh. If what I write makes someone laugh, I view that as worthwhile because life is more tragic than comic. I am certain about little but am certain about this: People feel better giggling than feeling sad. “Laugh more” is my motto. Chisel that into my tombstone. That would be enough to say about me.
Shakespeare’s tragedies may have been regarded as his best work but that’s easy to assert. Writing that life is hard and people do terrible things isn’t an insight. It’s obvious. Writing funny isn’t easy nor obvious. But laughing feels great. That, too, is obvious.
Just because an idea is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t worth knowing and repeating as a helpful reminder or just because. Understanding life isn’t obvious. Rather, it’s complicated, elusive, and frustrating. I say that’s an idea worth thinking about.
Hearn writes with force about the power of ideas and lauds those in universities who dedicate their lives to developing and sharing ideas to advance human understanding.
“To change the world most fundamentally is to change the way people think. Ideas are more powerful than kings and princes. The work and concern of the university is with ideas, and it is a profound error to regard academic concerns as merely academic. Ideas and those who create and transmit them rule the world.”
This article I am writing brings forth a few ideas. Maybe you know all this, but it’s at least an attempt to break through to some deeper place in your mind, heart, and soul. It’s me sharing with you what I experienced at my alma mater and how that transformed my life and explains why I am writing right now. A college experience did that. Man, that’s something. It’s emotional. It’s me sharing my feelings with you and I hope you feel something because of it. I hope you learn from this.
And I hope you recall how I started this article by writing about President Hearn’s speech on 9/11 at Wait Chapel. It struck me that in this book he writes about another experience linked to that day that wraps up this book’s essence. I believe it’s how my university president would hope I would wrap this up.
A year after the tragic day, Hearn writes that Wake Forest people decided to reach out to Wake Forest alumni who had been affected directly by the event. Hearn shared the email he received from one student to whom he wrote a letter. The student had been in a building facing the World Trade Center. Although evacuated to safety, the student’s email revealed he was an “emotional mess” afterward.
Fortunately, strong community support helped him recover. “This community is made up mostly of Wake Forest graduates. It is made up of Wake Forest graduates because of the sense of community that Wake Forest breeds. I intended this email to be a short response to express my gratitude, but it seems it took a longer form. This seems to be the theme of September 11 – that plans are ever-changing, and that life never ends up the way we thought it would. This, in essence, is why building a foundation for response is so vital. My foundation was built at Wake Forest.”
So was mine.
And for that, I will be grateful for the rest of my days.
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