On Sunday, May 11, St. John’s College held its two hundred twenty-second commencement ceremony in Annapolis. The commencement speaker was Andrew J. Krivak, an alumnus of the Annapolis Class of 1986, and a National Book Award Finalist for his first novel, The Sojourn.
One expects to hear a great deal of laudatory rhetoric at a commencement ceremony. Commencement speakers have something of an obligation to congratulate the graduates, as well as to praise parents and relatives for their support. They often make these celebratory topics the centerpieces of their speeches.
Mr. Krivak certainly fulfilled the obligation very elegantly. But he chose to place at the center of his speech an unexpected theme: the suffering and joy of struggle.
It takes a novelist to remind us of something that it is difficult for us to see from our perspective at the center of our own experience, namely, that our lives follow the curve of a narrative. “We are not just subjects,” he told us. “We are stories. Each of us will trace an arc of beginning, middle, and end, and each of us will struggle, just as it is in the beginning of the Iliad—mēnin aeide thea—right through to the end, when they will bury us breakers of horses. And only in that is there any truth.”
I am sure that all the graduating students in the audience had recent struggles in mind. Grappling with the authors on the Program leaves scars. Even forty-four years after my own graduation from St. John’s, I still remember wrestling with, and often losing to, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel.
But Mr. Krivak reminded us that many, including himself, had to struggle even to get to a position where they could struggle with the authors.
Reading was welcome inside our home, but outside there was a kind of suspicion, a jealousy, a desire to be mean, call it what you will, among my peers, so that I was bullied for asking questions, for having answers, for being a reader. Often it only meant verbal taunting and names. Bookworm. Univac. Professor (which seems kind of funny when I think about it now). But sometimes it became physical, so that I had to raise a fist in order to defend the fact that I loved and wanted to read books, and that I would defend the book as furiously as I would defend myself. Sometimes I was successful. Most times I was not.
A great many high school students who love reading and learning have to fight this battle every day. And if they are lucky enough to stick it out, they finally make their way to college, where they can begin a new set of struggles—not the least of which is striving to make a life of their own out of their contests with authors, teachers, and other students.
The lesson that we should take from this, Mr. Krivak told us, was that
the one thing we must do in our lives, and from which we should never shy, is struggle. If we are stories, then we will struggle. The Greeks called it the agōn. The contest. Nothing moved on stage without it. And on this stage, some of you will struggle for your happiness. Some for your souls. Some for your children. Others for a moral compass to make sense of what it is you want to do, or perhaps what it is you want to stop doing. And some of you will struggle for your lives. But I would wager a sizable bet that you already know about struggle. Because, I’ll bet, too, that when you chose to come here four years ago, you did so with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement at having found this place, with people so wildly different from you, and yet so naturally like you, because they loved to read books. Your fights would be within them, not whether you should live without them. And yet you felt trepidation, too, because you had gotten this far with your own fierce sense of that love of knowledge, something you yourself learned to protect, maybe even fought for, and now you had to make that transition from protection to putting your imagination and reason and wonder out there for others. Do you remember the feeling of reading The Iliad and knowing that you would get to sit and talk about it for two hours with twenty-two other people? My God, I can remember thinking to myself, sitting right over there on a warm afternoon and reading as if my life depended on it: For this I have struggled. And for this I will be grateful for a long, long time. And yet, I will tell you as well that later there were times when all I wanted to do was to give up and go somewhere else, or rather get on with something else. I’d had enough of struggling through what I didn’t want to read, never mind where or how it fit into the program. There had to be something else, something beyond this insulating sojourn. But that’s the way of it, no? That’s what becomes of having done something difficult and unique for a long time. It’s a similar struggle between the excitement and trepidation you felt upon arriving. It means that now it’s time to go.
This perhaps comes closest to the truth about commencement: it is a moment of respite, infused with excitement and trepidation for the future, between the struggles of the past and the struggles yet to come.
On that bright, sunshine-filled morning, with Mr. Krivak’s beautiful words echoing in their minds, it was time for our graduating students to go.
And go they did. I wish them all the best on their future struggles, and on the riches they will realize—both from the contests they lose and from those they win.