Close Menu

Whitworth College 2001 Graduate Commencement Address

May 19, 2001
Bill Robinson

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...

"Behold! Human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only a large wall before them, being prevented by the chains from turning 'round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance.

'You have shown me a strange image,' said Glaucon, 'and they are strange prisoners. Like ourselves; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?'

'True,' said Socrates; 'how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?'

'And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?' asked Glaucon. 'To them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.'

'That is certain,' replied Socrates."

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:

  1. Where is your cave? Where were you mistaking shadows for reality? Where were you before someone, perhaps a Whitworth professor, ushered you into the light? M.I.M. grads, were you in a cave of cultural darkness, thinking your ways of doing business were universal? Education grads, were you in a cave of methodological darkness, trying to copy the shadows of how to teach, not understanding real causes of learning? All of you grads, were you in a cave of spiritual darkness, paying tribute now and then to shadows, but not worshipping the God who created reality? Where is your cave?
  2. Who's still in your cave? The answer to this question will have a profound effect on how you re-enter it. Are the folks who remain in your cave the ones who aren't quite as smart as you? Do they lack your initiative, sensitivity and dazzling good looks, or are they simply folks who don't have the advantage of the light you have received? How do you feel about those folks you left behind?
  3. Why are you going back into that cave? I'll tell you up front, that cave is going to cause you some serious problems. First, it's going to seem way darker with your pupils tightly contracted from the light. You might think you're enlightened, but when you're stumbling around, banging into issues that pose few problems for people living in darkness, you won't impress your old fellow prisoners. You'd better know why you're going back into that cave.
  4. What can you expect to get out of re-entering your old cave of darkness? I am going to argue that the answer to this question must be different from the answer to question #3. What you will receive from helping your former inmates should not be the reason you go back into the cave.

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.

Question 1. Where is your cave? Your cave is anywhere darkness kept you from your full potential as a person or professional. You may not feel very proud that while you were in the cave you mistook shadows for reality, but please give yourself a break. Like chains of physical blindness, most of our intellectual chains are not ones we place on ourselves. I think it is unwise and inaccurate to think of your cave as a place of stupidity or immaturity. Your cave was a place of darkness where you did not have a full range of intellectual motion. Period. If you make too big of a deal out of your prior darkness, you will be obnoxious about your present light.

Question 2. Who is still in your cave? I think it would be great for you to assume it is Matt Denson who remains in your old cave. Matt ran straighter and faster with Sero Charles's light than he could have in his state of darkness. The people still occupying your former cave are folks who need your light. I don't know how Sero Charles offered his light to Matt Denson, but I do know that the way you offer your light will mightily influence how it is received. Humbly, make your light attractive and available to those in darkness. Do not look down on those who are in the cave as somehow inferior. I love the story about the two maggots taking a nap in big pile of fertilizer. When Farmer Jones threw a couple shovel scoops up on to his truck, the maggots awoke to discover one was up on the truck, and the other was still in the pile. The one down on the pile hollered, "Hey Bob, how'd you get up there?" "Brains and personality," Bob replied. It will help you stay humble if you remember that someone helped you exit Plato's allegorical cave; or you could think of yourself as a maggot in a manure pile on a truck. That'll keep you humble.

Question 3. Why are you going back into the cave? Sero Charles extended light to Matt Denson out of empathy and compassion. If we re-enter our old caves as heroes, our light will be rejected. If we re-enter our old caves paternalistically, our light will be rejected. If we re-enter our old caves to make us feel good, we are imposters who will be exposed. Re-entering the cave is not about us. It is about Matt Denson. I love the passage in St. Paul's letter to the church at Philippi. "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, let each of you regard one another as more important than yourself" (Phil 2:3).

Question 4. What can you expect to get out of re-entering your old cave? You can expect the durable satisfaction that you are doing for others what others have done for you. You have kept the chain of human goodness and responsibility unbroken. Like Sero Charles, you have offered your hand to Matt Denson. This is what you can expect. This is enough. This is a lot.

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.