Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Conversation -- Still More to Do?

The following post is excerpted from my final batch of Class Notes, reporting the inspiring goings-on at the 30th reunion. The Conversation segment on Sunday morning under the tent at TD did not disappoint, as you'll see. Thanks to all who made it a highlight. And let's stay in touch.

Here's my report:

It took a little prodding, but once the coffee and artery-clogging donuts arrived shortly after 9 a.m., fifty or so classmates, spouses and friends settled in for a final hour of reflection. My purpose, as the master of these (now-traditional) ceremonies, was to challenge the group to give themselves a hard look. I set the premise by noting that we had been trained as “supermen” in the heavier gravity of Amherst 30 years ago, only to live lives more suited to Clark Kent in our middle age. Shouldn’t we be trying to do more to make the world a more livable place?

It was an unfair poke, of course, but a sure-fire conversation starter.

Opinion seemed divided on how far to take the responsibility to do great deeds. Bob McCartney wondered whether we had already peaked with our activism in the 1970s and were now satisfied to settle into a slower, less confrontational pace. John Williams flatly said he was “happy to have that monkey off his back” at this stage of the game. Peter Wise argued, just as emphatically, that it was a “critical time” for us to make our contributions, to make a distinction “between what is evolution and what is intelligent design.”

Rob Carver split the difference, and summoned applause, with his observation that we all “have to play position,” doing what’s right and meaningful for each of us. Andy von Salis drove that point even closer to home, calling complacency “the real enemy” to be overcome, whether our choice was to live large or small.

Carol MacKinnon, a high-powered lawyer turned high-purpose mother, promoted the value of succeeding on a “small scale” with family, though she also joined in McCartney’s lament that the generation needed to restore its political edge, perhaps with a “new political party.” David Kirkpatrick commented that the tension inherent in such divergent dreams seemed to speak most directly to our group’s search for balance between goodness and greatness.

Frank Elllis suggested that little investments – adopting a child through a relief program, for instance – could make a big difference in somebody’s life. Bob Kirkwood, now an empty-nester with his wife at home and a daughter at Amherst, said many of us may be “freer” at this age to make different kinds of contributions and he looked forward to exploring what those could be.

Henry Fishman, the doctor and media personality, said it was “never too late to re-invent yourself.” Ben Ojserkis added that, like some medical discoveries, the best breakthroughs may be accidental – so be prepared to step up to the challenge when it appears.

Ron Bailey, as he does so well, capped the discussion with the Camus-inspired insight that “hope” was “the worst thing that came out of Pandora’s box.” We are bound by it, despite how frequently we may lose it. He told the story of a day he spent while a student at Amherst trying to track down eight dollars (a five and three one-dollar bills) that he dropped in the village on his way to do laundry. A force – hope, perhaps – led him to the police station, where he unburdened himself to a local cop. Amazingly, some very honest soul had left word at the station that a small wad of cash had indeed been recovered, and soon Ron and his “estate” were reunited. Whether it was just a cute story or a turning point in a young Amherst life now devoted to spiritual service, Ron’s personal parable seemed to capture many of the emotions we all had expressed – loss, frustration, hope and, finally, renewal.

It was especially important to remember that cycle as we faced the news about Dave Ferguson upon our return home. With renewed hope, we can honor Dave and redouble our own commitments to life.