Editor’s Note: This commencement address was delivered to the graduating students of King College in Bristol, Tennessee in May 2011. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom. (Song of Solomon 2:15)
Mr. President, esteemed faculty, family and friends of the graduates and, most importantly, graduating Class of 2011:
I’m guessing the faculty and admission counselors of this fine institution lured you here with some hefty promises and big talk—that a King College education would equip you to transform culture, turn the world upside down, and become leaders in your field, all while roller skating backwards, juggling flaming chainsaws, and battling poverty in rural Alabama! (Been there, done that.) On the way in here, you were encouraged to “dream big.”
On your way out there I have a different exhortation for you: “Dream small.” Now, I want you to understand that exhortation. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t dream big. And without question, your King College education has well equipped you to do whatever God might be calling you to in His broken-but-blessed world—to be a veritable Tornado of grace and accomplishment, cutting a swath through this world that will leave behind a wake of compassion and achievement.
So I have every expectation that you will continue to dream big. Indeed, I think that all comes rather naturally for us. We inhabit a culture that resounds with messages and covert rituals that all subtly encourage us to pursue the bigger, the better, the mega. Even the church has been emboldened of late with big plans for transforming culture, newly confident in our ability to redeem the world. You have been told your whole life that you can do whatever you put your mind to. So “dreaming big” has sort of become second nature for us. We are so constantly expanding our horizons, enlarging our territories, and looking toward a bright, shiny future of accomplishment that it’s hard for us to see all the little stuff right in front of us.
So you don’t need me to tell you to dream big. But I do hope you’ll hear me when I encourage you to also dream small. Because that might be what really matters. And it might be where your education really pays off.
There is a curious little passage buried in the Song of Solomon that is germane to this point. (If you know your Bible, and you know the Song of Solomon, then you’re now hoping I’m going to talk about sex. I’ll see what I can do.) The poetry invokes a concern with the little things through a viticultural metaphor of fruit-bearing. It goes like this: “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (Song of Solomon 2:15).
It’s the little foxes the ruin the vineyard. If you’re always dreaming big—surveying your vineyard, plotting the next acquisition of the vineyard down the road, dreaming about all your plans for the estate—in other words, if you tend to always look beyond the vineyard and don’t enjoy actually caring for the vines, you’ll miss the pesky little foxes that are ruining what’s right in front of you. You’ll never be able to enjoy the wine of the vineyard if you ignore the little foxes. You won’t enjoy the fruit of the vine if you don’t tend to the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty work of viticulture.
And here’s what you might not yet realize: that real joy is found right there in the dirt, in the ho-hum task of tending the plant, in cultivating the terroir that will nourish the vines that yield the fruit. While you’re imagining all of the outcomes of the vineyard and all the benefits to be reaped, what might be hard for you to imagine is that some of your best days—when you feel like all is right with the universe, and what you’re doing means something, and you know why you’re here, and your heart swells in gratitude and joy—well, those will be days when you’re mucking about in the vineyard, tending to the little foxes.
All right, let’s come back from the metaphor for a minute. Please don’t hear this as some moralism about the necessity for hard work so that you can enjoy a big payoff. This isn’t some literary version of the no-pain-no-gain gospel of accomplishment and “success.” To the contrary, what I’m suggesting is this: so many of the big dreams that you now envision as “success” are, when you get there, going to feel unbelievably empty and vapid and anticlimactic. In fact, let me put it starkly: if you keep thinking happiness is in the land of big dreams, then you are on a trajectory toward disappointment. If you only dream big, you’re headed for disillusionment—not because you can’t do it, but precisely because you can! We’re sending you out of here with the ticket to success. But it can be just that “success” that will feel hollow and deflated unless you learn to dream small.
Talk to all kinds of people who have achieved everything they set out to do in this life, who made it to the top of their professional heap, and what you’ll often hear is this: “It’s not what I thought it would be.” What it turns out to be, even at the height of accomplishment, is boring as hell. Just when you’ve spent a life climbing to that fabled “top,” where you thought having it all would mean everything, you get there only to discover that it doesn’t mean all that much. This is why tedium and ennui are the demons of modernity. And the only way to exorcise them is with gratitude for the mundane. The bacchanalian delights of the wine are going to have diminishing returns; you need to find joy in actually tending the vineyard, in concern for “the little foxes.”
Here a parable comes to mind: the parable of Lester Burnham as told in the film American Beauty. You might recall Lester, played so well by Kevin Spacey, mired in the boredom and placid emptiness of what was supposed to be a “successful” American life. He is finally awoken from his suburban slumber by fantasizing about Angela, whom he thinks is the girl of his dreams (his wife Carolyn notwithstanding!). So Lester falls into the trap of thinking that happiness is to be found in the fantastic, in a dream-world that is something other than his mundane, workaday existence. But just when he is about to attain his dream, he realizes that what he’s wanted has been right in front of him this whole time. It’s just that his fantasies and dreams blinded him to the all the delights enfolded in his own little world. And so the film closes with this moving, post-mortem soliloquy:
I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, lice an ocean of time . . . For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars . . . And yellow leaves, from the maple trees that lined our street . . . Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper . . . and the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird . . . And Janie . . . And Janie . . . And . . . Carolyn.
I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me . . . but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, and my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst . . . And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life . . . You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry . . . you will some day.
Graduates, I’m trying to plant a little seed that can sprout for you on that “someday.”
The measure of your King education is not what you know, but what you love. And as Saint Augustine never tired of saying, what you love is what you enjoy. Your teachers have tried not to just inform you about the world; they’ve tried to pass on to you a love for corners of God’s world that you perhaps never saw before. They have invited you into the nooks and crannies of God’s creation—into the fascinating complexity of the brain or the mournful cadences of Bach, in the play of poetry or the dazzle of digital media. You’ve been invited to wonder, to be perplexed, to puzzle, to discern, to critique, to take delight. To enjoy. Your education hasn’t just equipped you for a career—it has trained your joy.
Hopefully your education here at King has plucked strings you didn’t even know you had, activated parts of you that were dormant. In short, I hope your education has expanded your very self, because it has taught you to love new things and find joy and meaning right in front of you. Because it is precisely that capacity that will enable you to dream small—to bloom and flourish in the everyday. It is precisely the baptized curiosity of a full-orbed Christian education—reflected in the core curriculum at the heart of your King degree—that will enable you to resist the fantasy of big-dream happiness as well as the numbness and tedium of late modern life. Your education has taught you how to care about what really matters because it has equipped you to see the world with new eyes, to engage the world with new commitments, to redeem the world with renewed passion. And you can do that wherever you are. This sort of holistic education deepens the mundane and enriches the quotidian—it enchants the everyday. Believe me: you’re going to need that.
You have been entrusted with a gift; you are now a steward of your education. What will you do with it? Dreaming big is easy. The bigger challenge is to dream small—to draw on the gift of your education to deepen your embeddedness in the gritty realities of everyday life. Your education has equipped you to take on the world, but I want you to realize that it has also equipped you to pay attention to the little foxes.
Do you have grand visions of transforming the world economy? Fantastic. How about you start by moving to “the abandoned spaces of empire“—committing to live day-in and day-out in the vicinity of those who are crushed underfoot of existing economic systems? Your education has taught you why that is important and how it can be meaningful. Can you dream small enough that you can find joy and significance in the texture of a neighbourhood? Are you willing to follow our incarnating God who also dreamed small—who, when he came to dwell in the neighbourhood of humanity, did not relocate to Rome but moved to the other side of the tracks in tiny Nazareth?
Or do you fantasize about being the next social media guru, imagining hitherto-unthought-of ways to connect the world by digital links? Marvelous. Just don’t forget to build friendships and relationships with people who have bodies, who are close by, who will sit with you in valleys and drink with you on the mountaintops of your experience. Don’t forget the hard good work of being part of a congregation that worships God and feeds the poor, despite the fact that it frustrates you to no end. Don’t forget the hard good work of building marriages and families that are little microcosms of the coming Kingdom; it will be the hardest and the best thing you’ll ever do.
Because it’s in these mundane, workaday spaces that you’ll find a meaning and a hope and a joy that endures. I know you’re dreaming big dreams. I know you’re already imagining the heights you’ll scale. Please do. I just want you to know that if you can also marshal the ability to dream small, you’ll find what you’re looking for in the most unexpected places. In fact, let me close with a poem by Todd Boss. It suggests that if you dream small enough, you might find this in the bathroom one morning.
This Morning in a Morning Voice
BY TODD BOSS
to beat the froggiest
of morning voices,
my son gets out of bed
and takes a lumpish song
along—a little lyric
learned in kindergarten,
something about a
boat. He’s found it in
the bog of his throat
before his feet have hit
the ground, follows
its wonky melody down
the hall and into the loo
as if it were the most
natural thing for a little
boy to do, and lets it
loose awhile in there
to a tinkling sound while
I lie still in bed, alive
like I’ve never been, in
love again with life,
afraid they’ll find me
drowned here, drowned
in more than my fair
share of joy.
Class of 2011: May God bless you with the same.