In the months before his death, my father's thoughts turned to home, or "down home," as he used to say. "Who was it that said you can't go home again?" he asked during a conversation we had then. "Thomas Wolfe. Well, as far as I'm concerned, you can never leave home. Those thoughts are just locked in your mind."
That was said after 50 years of living in New York, the place where his children were born, where his career and new family roots were established. Yet, in the end, it was to those early memories that, probably naturally and instinctively, he turned.
Home was here, in this small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. Here it was that his parents, and their parents and on back for several generations, lived and died. Here it was that he grew up, in the big white frame house on Prior Street into which his mother took boarders in World War I after her husband died -- a move that, with the accompanying long years of endless hard work, enabled her to see all six of her children through college. The "Johnson House" was, as they used to say, literally in the shadow of Brenau College. Now, so many years later, it is a Brenau sorority house.
I mention all this personal background because I find myself, this weekend, drawn back into half-remembered family stories, intimate associations, and forced to come to some kind of terms with them. I have been invited to address the 107th annual commencement at Brenau -- from which my grandmother graduated in the 1890s -- in the presence of aunts, uncles and cousins, some of whom I have not seen in years, or even decades.
Any commencement speaker, at any time, has a feckless and probably foolish task. The last thing today's young graduates want, no less than their counterparts in generations past, is to sit through a sermon by some old geezer musing about the Meaning and Challenges of Life or assorted values thereof. The graduates want to get on with it, especially, I suspect, this year's crop.
No dark shadows formed by war or depression or other grave crisis hang over them. They are stepping out into an America vibrant with confidence. If the self-portrait they draw of themselves is accurate, they are believers in their own destiny. The words of the president last week, in his nationally televised address on tax reform, seemed aimed in large part at them and their presumed state of mind.
They, the so-called Yuppies, born at the end of the brief Kennedy reign but with no memory of it; nurtured in the early days of the Great Society but without knowledge of the extraordinary changes it wrought and aware most of its perceived failures; tempered as they advanced through grade and high school by the omnipresent but withal distant, to them, disasters of Vietnam and Watergate, have come of age in a society that seems, once again, hell-bent on success and material comfort.
I have no doubt that they responded positively to the president's words and general tone: America, go for it. Climb the ladder of success. Be again No. 1. Let the spirit of entrepreneurship, of individualism, be your guide and motivating force. Make it!
Listening to him, with his splendid delivery and infectious optimism, I found myself thinking that he surely is right in much of what he says, particularly in the transparent need to improve our appalling and unfair tax system. He's right, too, in something else:
It is a great thing for a leader to be able to inspire confidence and motivate citizens to greater effort; in this, he has been a spectacular example of success. At the same time, throughout his presidency his underlying philosophical approach has raised doubts and concerns.
His appeal has been to private instead of public interests, to self instead of selfless interests. Absent is any call for public service, for common effort, for shared sacrifice, for actions that extend beyond the gratification of the individual, for a wise perspective on the experience of the past and a clear definition of the unmet challenges of the future. The result of this sort of thinking leads to greater celebration of selfishness. It means a greater green light for a new wave of greed so evident in these mid-1980s.
Come to think of it, perhaps graduation ceremonies do have a value. At least they permit a momentary pause for reflection on larger questions. In that respect, I take my text on this occasion from William Faulkner, a southerner whose themes were regional in scope -- "down home," if you will -- but universal in concept. In his acceptance speech in Stockholm 35 years ago, after he won the Nobel Prize for literature, Faulkner said:
"I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work -- a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist there before."
Then, as now, the specter of nuclear war and the extinction of the human species was the great issue. Faulkner addressed those fears:
"I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will be still one more sound: that of his puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking.
"I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."
End of sermon, Class of '85. Now, go for it, but, I hope, go for it for something more than just yourselves.