“Whose Dog Are You?”
2012 Presidential Convocation Address
Huntingdon College Montgomery, Alabama
August 22, 2012
Well, first year students, entering class: This one’s for you. This speech is for you. Everyone else is here to listen in while I talk with you.
Huntingdon, as you are learning, is defined by many traditions. Some are informal, like Welcome Back Bowling last night, like the Waterslide this afternoon, like the arrival of Saint Nicholas on a fire truck and the lighting of the Christmas trees the Thursday night before exams. Some are formal, like this occasion today. This gathering — the Presidential Convocation (“convocation” means “a calling together”) — is a time set aside to remind ourselves of what college is all about. Of why we are here in the first place. We do this, my first year friends, to bring you inside The Family where most of the rest of us have been living for one year, two years, three years, 10 years, 25 years, or longer.
The studying, the playing, the praying; the thinking, the competing, the singing; the hanging out; the learning — whenever, wherever, however it all takes place in classroom, studio, chapel, playing field and court, service project site, Greek chapter room: What is the point of it all?
Why do we crowd together on these 68 acres four months in the fall semester and four months in the spring semester? What makes college “college”; and what makes Huntingdon “Huntingdon”?
Before I tell you what I think makes college “college,” and Huntingdon “Huntingdon,” I’m going to offer a prayer for our College Family as we set out on this year’s journey together:
Gracious God, eternal God, you have led us to curiosity about our creation, ourselves, and all things unknown.
Let us never lose our sense of wonder about the world you have given us.
God of Abraham and Sarah,
you lead us to new understandings when we least expect them. Let us never see ourselves as too young, too old, too ordinary, or too wise to learn new lessons and new truths.
God of the prophets, and of Jesus,
you call us to speak truth with love to a reluctant world.
Give us courage to face the truth about ourselves, and wisdom to learn from those you send to teach us.
(United Methodist Book of Worship, #433, alt.)
Every fall, I meet many new students when I walk my dog, Colin, at night on campus. Colin is our family’s four year old male Sheltie, or Shetland Sheep Dog; and he is, indeed, the world’s greatest dog. Along with yours, of course, as you will come to see when you meet him.
Sometimes, not often but sometimes, I unleash Colin so he can sniff around where he will for a minute or two. One night last week, when I turned my head to say hello to someone riding his bike through campus, the unleashed Colin ran up to one of you; and as I turned back around I heard you say: “Well, hello pup, whose dog are you?” And that’s how I met one of our new students last week.
When you study British literature here, you may learn about the 18th Century British poet Alexander Pope and his epigrammatic poetry. Pope, himself, was a dog lover. He was known for his satiric wit, which he often expressed in his epigrams. In the 1720’s, Pope moved to Twickenham; built a house along the banks of the River Thames; and dug a tunnel to his garden on the other side of the road, decorating the tunnel and its entrance with shells, mirrors, crystals and other stones, thus creating a grotto or cavern. One of Pope’s friends, reputedly, was the Prince of Wales, who, reputedly, visited Pope at his grotto and sent minerals from his mine in Cornwall to help Pope decorate his grotto. As the story goes, on one of his visits the Prince of Wales took a liking to Pope’s dog, Bounce. And when Bounce gave birth to a litter of pups, Pope sent his friend the prince (who lived in the Palace at Kew) a puppy, along with an epigram engraved on the pup’s collar: “I am His Highness’ Dog at Kew: Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”
Yes, even the Prince of Wales — heir to the British crown — belongs to a master. So do you. So do I. We all have a master. None of us can avoid serving someone, something, some ideal, some belief system or creed, some faith, some god. Perhaps that master, in the minds of some of us, is ourselves. Perhaps some of us believe we are our own masters. That’s really the fundamental question of human life: “Who is your master?” “Whom or what do you serve?” Or as Alexander Pope put it in his epigram: “Whose dog are you?” The answer determines how you live your life, what kind of difference for good you make in the world, the way people will remember you long after you are gone.
While I was thinking over the last several weeks about what to say to you today, I — like everyone I know and probably like each of you — got caught up in the Summer Olympics. Who wouldn’t have been thrilled watching Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Mo Farrah, even Queen Elizabeth jumping out of a plane? That was Queen Elizabeth, wasn’t it? Then there was Usain Bolt. Usain Bolt’s performance on the track was drama enough, but he topped that drama with the drama of his off-track interview after winning the 200 meters.
Who does Usain Bolt serve? You be the judge:
“I’m now a legend. I am the greatest athlete to live. To all the people who doubted me, who thought I would lose here, you can stop talking now. I am a living legend….. I have one more thing to say….Bask in my glory. If I don’t see that in the paper and on TV in all your countries I will never give an interview again. Tell everyone to follow me on Twitter.”
Who does Usain Bolt serve? Bob Costas of NBC, after hearing Mr. Bolt interviewed, left no doubt about his answer to that question when he commented: “It’s hard to have a higher opinion of Usain Bolt than he has of himself, so we’ll leave it at that.”
If, indeed, we do leave it at that, we could say with confidence that Usain Bolt is just another self-centered, self-serving, egomaniac with no room in his life, in his values, for anyone or anything else. But let’s not leave it at that. As the American novelist Henry James once cautioned us: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” (epigraph to William Boyd, “Any Human Heart”).
Even if those comments by Usain Bolt were all we knew of his heart, we still would not have the last word, we still would not know everything about him. For in that same interview, he was asked if he is now on the same level in track as was Muhammad Ali in boxing, Michael Jordan in basketball, and Pele in soccer, not to mention whether he thought he had succeeded Bob Marley as “the greatest Jamaican in history.” (Bob Marley, for those of you who have never heard of him, was a Jamaican singer and song writer who died in 1981 and was given a Jamaican state funeral. He was the writer and original performer of, “I Shot the Sheriff,” before Eric Clapton produced his cover of that song.) Usain Bolt’s answer to the interviewer: “Bob Marley. I’m just carrying on his duty. We have the same goal, to make Jamaica a country that is loved around the world.” So, maybe just maybe, Usain Bolt was running for more than just himself. Did he see himself as the servant of his homeland, Jamaica? Is love of country and the desire to lift his country what drives Usain Bolt?
Never say you know the last word about any human heart.
But wait, there’s more. Before winning gold in the 200 meters, Usain Bolt won gold in the 100 meters. While being interviewed after the 100 meters, he suddenly cut off the reporter when he realized there was a medal ceremony going on elsewhere in the stadium. The reporter did not seem to recognize the song in the background, so with politeness and dignity, Mr. Bolt stopped the interview, pointed out American Sanya Richards-Ross receiving her gold medal, and stood quietly and with respect while the Star Spangled Banner played. So, maybe just maybe, Usain Bolt was running for more than just himself, for more than just Jamaica. Did he see himself as the servant of the Olympic ideal, of brotherhood and sisterhood among the world’s peoples? Is not only love of country and the desire to lift his country, but also a commitment to the dignity of all peoples, what drives Usain Bolt? Who and what is his master? Whom and what does he serve? Whose dog is he?
Never say you know the last word about any human heart.
My first year friends, we as much as Usain Bolt are a tangle of complementary and contradictory emotions, loyalties, values. We can all be self-absorbed and selfish… and, also, outward looking and selfless. We can all be boastful and childish… and, also, humble and mature. We can all be an embarrassment…and, also, a source of wonder and amazement to those who hear us, watch us, love us. The key to our lifelong success and our lasting value to the world and to those around us is whether we grow more and more beyond the, “Me, me, me” part of our personality, to the “You, you, you” part of our personality, and ultimately to the, “Them, them, them” part of our personality…in ever-widening circles.
It isn’t just about me: I am a part of you, and together we are a part of them. That’s the message of the Big Red Day of Service, when you first year students go out in the community to paint, to clean up, to deconstruct houses, to encourage those who need help. It isn’t just about me: I am a part of you, and together we are a part of them. You lived that message on Saturday in force, and the City of Montgomery sat up and took notice of what Huntingdon is all about. The more you live your life in that way, the better the world will be and the happier you and those around you will be. We may never know the last word about any human heart; but as we move along through life — as you move along through your first year and then toward graduation — you should expect to begin figuring out just what does drive you, begin figuring out just who and what you do serve, begin figuring out just who is your master, begin figuring out just whose dog you really are. That’s what college, that’s what Huntingdon is all about.
Now, my first year friends and my faculty colleagues who teach PACT to my first year friends, I’m going to give you an invitation. The same invitation I give every year. If you want to argue with me, if you want to agree with me; if you want to throw rotten tomatoes at me, if you want to send me a bouquet of roses:
Just invite me to your PACT class. I’ll come; I’ll talk; I’ll listen; I’ll learn. We’ll all think together…I’ll be the better for it…and so will you.
The last couple of years, I’ve gotten invitations from a couple of classes. This year I hope I’ll get invitations from everybody.
We Are Huntingdon. We Are Family. “Hawk ‘Em!” God bless you all.