Whitworth College 2001 Graduate Commencement Address
May 19, 2001
In Plato's well-known book The Republic, he tells a wonderful story about a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (notice the similarity between the name "Glaucon" and "glaucoma"). I've slightly abridged the opening of this dialogue to help you understand the context of their exchange. Socrates begins...
Now, at this point, I hate to try to teach you any more school lessons, but I don't think you really want to graduate without thinking one last time about Plato's cave. Who is Socrates talking about here? (By the way, I'm sure you education graduates are comforted to notice that Socrates uses the Socratic method of pedagogy here.)
We notice that the cave dwellers are prisoners - chained, in fact. Now, it is important here for us to review a little history about Plato. As the father of rationalism, he initiated the philosophy that our ideas of reality lie deeply embedded within our rational processes. Further, he believed that people were born with different intellectual capacities. So Plato readily would have said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," but he never would have said, "that all men are created equal." For Plato, the people in the cave were prisoners of ignorance. They saw only shadows of the truth, and Plato held little hope that these captives were capable of intellectually leaving the cave. A prisoner released from the chains who turned toward the light would quickly turn away from the painful brightness. I hope none of you are quite so pessimistic about human potential.
BUT, Plato wrote, "Suppose someone were to drag a prisoner away forcibly up the steep and rugged ascent and not let him go until he had hauled him into the sunlight...? Would not his eyes be so full of the light's radiance that he could not see a single one of the things that he was now told were real?"
Plato goes on to observe that eventually this "prisoner of unwisdom" would grow accustomed to the forms beyond the shadows, and therefore would be able to "act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of state."
So, does this new, enlightened soul now live happily ever after? Not exactly. Plato writes, "And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?" In other words, THAT FOOL WANTS TO GO BACK INTO THE CAVE.
Well folks, we're all fools. We all carry the missionary spirit, crusading against the ignorance that was formerly ours. And I believe it is our duty to return to the darkness of the cave. We can empathize with the cave dwellers. They need us, and we need to hear their call. My question for you today is, "How do we make the trip back into the cave?"
I'd like you to consider four questions:
I'd like to tell you a story that has inspired me since the day it occurred. It's not really a sports story, although it could be mistaken for one. It is a better story than A-Rod's $252 million.
In 1988, a young man named Sero Charles stood on the brink of his first big chance to run a marathon in the light, loosened from the chains of darkness that had shackled him for most of his life. Sero had grown up in Trinidad where, during his early years, he was a track prodigy. By the age of nine, his vision was beginning to deteriorate. Shadows were replacing images. Tragically, Sero was being dragged into a cave of physical darkness. By age 12, this young track star was blind.
Sero kept running. In fact, in 1987, he used up three guides as he blazed through the New York Marathon, covering the 26-plus miles with the race's top runners. But between the 1987 and 1988 New York Marathons, Sero was handed a miracle. The Achilles Track Club funded a surgical procedure that gave him his sight back. He would no longer need guides to run. He had left the cave of darkness. He could now run like the wind.
Well, Sero didn't post the kind of time everyone expected in the 1988 New York Marathon. But a blind person named Matt Denson did run a wonderful race. Unlike Sero Charles in 1987, Matt didn't have to use three guides to run the marathon. He had one partner lead him for the whole race. His partner? Sero Charles. Rather than run for the glory, Sero Charles went back into the cave and ran for Matt Denson.
Plato's cave allegory is just that - an allegory. But I'd like to suggest that we use this REAL story of seeing the light to help us answer the four questions I posed earlier.
Last Friday, I was thumbing through the alumni magazine from my first college while on a plane, returning from Los Angeles. It's always fun to look for familiar names, to find out that some of your friends actually got jobs. Well, it was anything but fun when I looked in the obituary section and saw the name of my roommate of two years, Jim Potter. Potts was older than most of our class; he was a Viet Nam veteran. He and I were perfect for each other. His training in subversive operations complemented my need for adventure. Obviously, I'd lost track of Potts. I didn't know where he was...but I always knew what he was doing. He was a recovering alcoholic from a family of not-so-recovering alcoholics. He cared deeply for his family; he loved them and he respected them, their darkness notwithstanding. So the only time I smiled in reading this obituary that otherwise filled me with grief is when I read about the job that Potts got. He was the regional program coordinator in the Illinois Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. I knew Potts would go back into the cave. And I know how he went. He went laughing, teasing, and loving all those Matt Densons who wanted and needed the light of sobriety. You da man, Potts.
Let me conclude with one final observation about lights and caves. Just because we have left the darkness of one cave doesn't mean we have left the darkness of all caves. I urge you to ask yourself if there are areas of your life in which you are still tracking shadows. At Whitworth, we believe the Gospel of John where it says that Jesus is the light, a light that shines in a cave filled with folks who do not understand the light. He is the best light. He is better than Potts; he is better than Sero Charles. He is the light of the world. Should any of you in the days ahead sense a darkness in your soul, remember the light upon which your alma mater was founded. It is the light of salvation and hope. It is the brightest light of all. It is the light of Christ, and may it be a light that you will always follow.