Good morning! Given that I want to start my remarks this morning with a calculus lesson, I can’t help but revive an old - and terrible - math joke. It goes: Why should you worry about the math teacher holding graph paper? Because she is definitely plotting something.
There is a topic in differential calculus called the Chain rule. It’s a tricky topic, so bear with me. It’s used to determine the derivatives of composite functions, and it is accompanied by word problems referred to as related rate problems. Classic related rate problems entail figuring out how fast the top of a ladder sliding down a wall is moving at any given moment or how quickly the volume of a balloon is changing as the radius increases.
Anyway, when I taught calculus students how to solve related rate problems, I used to constantly remind them that the independent variable, the variable unfettered by other variables, was always time and that everything changes with respect to time.
Everything changes with respect to time. This turns out to be a universal truth that extends beyond calculus. It applies to objects and experiences big and small, from the cosmological to the atomic.
Everything changes with respect to time. Variations on this statement are found across history and across cultures. The philosopher Heraclitus, who lived in approximately 500 BCE, said, “Change is the only constant in life.” The I Ching, an ancient philosophical text from China, whose title translates to “book of changes,” likewise, is filled with ruminations about time and its partner, change.
However, in my youth, and even as a student of calculus (and here I have to pause and thank my own calculus teacher, Jane Brandt, who taught me calc at Concord High School), I labored under the impression that things would remain as they were, that life as it was at the moment was life as it would be evermore.
Perhaps some days you labor under this impression as well? Perhaps it feels as if the routines that shape our lives - Chapel, classes, meals, evening work, etc. - are unceasing? Perhaps this impression contributes to a sense of futility or frustration? It used to be so for me when I was an unhappy 17-year old.
But this is wrong. I have had a sufficient number of trips around the sun and some help along the ride to realize this.
That help has come from diverse sources. For example, I have this app on my phone of which I am particularly fond. It’s called “WeCroak” (its emblem is a frog), and five times a day it reminds me with quotes from philosophers, poets, or noble thinkers that I am going to, someday, die. The app’s origins lie in a Bhutanese belief that contemplating one’s eventual demise five times a day brings happiness. One such quote, provided last weekend, this one from Elizabeth Bishop, was, “Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of lesser happiness are passing by.
The reason I’m fond of the app is that it provides me with perspective. When I am frustrated with myself, when work is particularly challenging, when I feel as if I am falling short of what is needed, I look at my phone and there is a reminder that I have to accept the things I must, let go of things that don’t matter, and honor the things that do. The app also reminds me, five times a day, that my current state of being is temporary. The way things are today is NOT how they will be tomorrow.
My ability to recognize and embrace change has arisen from my aging, as well. If you were in Chapel on March 1st, the day I set out on a trip to Asia, you would have heard Mr. Callahan announce my birthday among all the other spring break birthdays.
(I have to tell you that when I asked Mr. C to step into Chapel in my place, he called me a weasel for leaving him with the spring break birthday list. You’re right, Colin; it WAS weasely!)
Turns out, I turned 60 over the break and, if the statisticians and actuaries are correct (here comes more math), then I am in the third third of my life.
There is so much I could say about what people did NOT tell me about aging: my skin turning papery, grey hairs appearing on my head, the development of a slight tremor in my hands. Observing all the physical changes reminds me of the joke, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it by not dying.” But, as is said in calculus, and on my app, everything changes with respect to time.
While there was much people didn’t tell me about aging, I have had some role models for how to do it. I recently discovered the poet Mary Oliver, whose quotes and poems I love, including these: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” and “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” And this one, “When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
I also had a great-aunt, named Nellie, who lived to be 112 years old. This is not a misstatement; she was born in 1885 and died in 1997. Her life and mine overlapped for 38 years. When she was in her 90’s, she went for a ride on a snowmobile. When she turned 100, we celebrated her birthday with a bbq here on the Chapel lawn. When she was well into her 100’s, I took her for a ride in my brand new Mazda Miata. After helping her in the car and dropping the convertible top, I asked her if she wanted a scarf for her puffy, white meringue of hair. “No,” she said to me, “I want to fill the wind in my hair!”
While Nellie never took a calculus class, she nonetheless lived long enough to witness women’s suffrage, automobiles, air and space travel and the introduction of the internet. Nellie taught me how to recognize the fundamental nature of change and embrace it.
I am often asked how St. Paul’s has changed in the 25 years that have elapsed since I last worked here. While it is true that SPS has evolved significantly since 1994, I have as well, perhaps even more than the School. Things that used to irritate or upset me barely register. I don’t take myself as seriously as I did when I was 25 years old. I don’t obsess over my missteps or shortcomings the way I used to. I recognize how little I actually know much more than I did in my heady youth. This is the gift of growing old; you get perspective and experiences that allow you to let go of the trivial, recognize the significant and embrace change. It’s also why I have WeCroak on my phone; it provides a daily reminder.
You, here this morning, have evolved and changed even in the eight months that I have known you. You are not the same person I met in September. You have grown physically, you have matured, you have stretched yourself intellectually, and you have grown comfortable with me. (Or, at least I HOPE you have!)
SPS’s responsibility for your growth is why I believe that the most important traits a school should instill in her students are courage, compassion, and adaptability. That last attribute arises from a recognition of not just the fundamental reality of change, but also, now, in the early 21st-century, the accelerating rate of change. The ability to adapt seems to be particularly important for you students, given things like climate change, demographic changes, and political upheaval within this nation and across the globe.
Time is the independent variable; however, when it comes to your growth and changes, and we have only ten weeks left here. We have entered into the third third of our school year. We will never recreate this spring convocation. After June 2nd, we will never again be here, together, simultaneously.
I haven’t done nearly all that I had hoped to do this year, all that I aspired to do back in September. But I am not discouraged. I am instead even more committed than I was back in the fall to savor the time we share together.
This is not the early goodbye it might seem to be. Instead, it’s an exhortation to you to seek out opportunities to grow and lean into the work that together we undertake this spring, to savor the relationships we have forged here and to sustain joy. It’s also a reminder that change happens, whether or not you accept change, whether or not you are ready for it, and whether or not you are returning to SPS next fall. I am here this morning to encourage you to recognize the opportunities embedded in those changes and the existential, fundamental nature of change, as well. Given the choice, it’s always better to embrace it.
There are only 10 precious weeks of this assemblage left. Seventy days. Don’t spend these days foolishly; don’t squander them fretting about the perceived unchanging nature of your existence, or worrying about your shortcomings. Take a page from Mary Oliver, and cultivate amazement. Do what Nellie did and feel the wind in your hair. Remember not to ignore days of lesser happiness in the sole pursuit of greater happiness. Because, as any good calculus student will tell you, everything changes with respect to time.
Thank you and have a wondrous spring term!