“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” … Albert Einstein
WHEN I ASSESS WHAT I EXPERIENCED YESTERDAY through these observations of Einstein, I realize I was never more fully alive. Standing before a filled to capacity Alumni Hall at Western University, and for the first time in life being introduced as “Doctor Glen Pearson,” I was carried along by emotions not of my own making and immersed in tradition far greater than any single life.
And yet the subject of my commencement speech was the sheer power of the enlightened individual. Before me sat graduates, all gowned in Western’s purple, who were about set to unleash their great talents and passions on a world that would surely be shaped different by their efforts. And for that brief few moments, all that youth and vitality mixed with my older years into what was the graduated class of 2014.
I had been robed earlier and stood with my family and Western President Amit Chakma for some official pictures, feeling welcomed and honoured, as only great educational institutions can accomplish. Filing in with the other dignitaries through the gathering of those who were about to become my graduating peers was a kind of baptism into a new family, keen of mind and prone for adventure.
No sooner was I bestowed with the Honourary Doctorate of Laws than I was asked to address the graduates, their families, and the faculty. I had been prepared, but the moment I stepped up to the microphone, it was immediately apparent to me that I was filled with a kind of awe – an historical mystery of time and place that makes one feel ennobled and humbled in the same moment. For the briefest of seconds I couldn’t speak. I was being swallowed up and singled out by tradition in a single act of great kindness and honour that only a great university can bestow.
I spoke of what the moment meant to my family. There before me was Margaret Roy, my mother-in-law – 91-years old and a woman of pioneering spirit who graduated from Western University in the year of my birth, 1950. When she was singled out, the audience welcomed and honoured her with warm applause. But present too were my wife Jane and a number of my children who were Western graduates. My three Sudanese kids will soon be graduating from those hallowed halls as well. And now, for the very first time, I would join the great Western family as one of its own. Our veins would flow purple.
But the heart of the speech was really about the power of the individual and its capacity to shape and better the world. I recalled the words of Jane Austen – “A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can” – and stated that it was finally time to file such an outlook into the history books. There before me were hundreds of graduates and most of them were women, about ready to challenge their world, not only by their presence, but their abilities and gifts. Yet rather than merely applaud that fact, why not actually give them positions of leadership as a way of embracing a better form of humanity – more inclusive, gifted, and equal?
The remainder of my speech I don’t recall so well. I was, fully and meaningfully, lost in the body of my peers. All that I would expect of them, I must accept of myself. If they were brimming with potential, then so was I, despite my years. In an instant I knew that the standing ovation that resulted said more about the dedicated hopes and aspirations of those graduates and their families than in any words I could have shaped. It was their way of saying, “We’re set and ready to make the world a place to which our dreams call us.
I went into the day as a citizen and came away from it an honoured soul. With my mother-in-law, my 7 children, 4 grandchildren, and numerous friends, I stood in awe of the power of an enlightened institution about to be infused with a renewed legacy of teeming life. And I realized that, while some pursue meaning, all of these people who filled my day were about to create it. The world would never quite be the same because of that potential.
If the greatest thing about wisdom is to spot the miraculous in the common, then yesterday was a moment of great clarity and promise. The awe of it remains with me today, but the responsibility towards the creation of that new world now weighs heavier on all those who were present yesterday. We are up to the task.