Faculty Convocation Address

Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - 16:59
Overcoming Fear
Vincent Ferraro, Ruth Lawson Professor of Politics
September 6, 2006

President Creighton, members of the board of trustees, distinguished colleagues, and all members of the Mount Holyoke College community--including the class of double-o seven,

Welcome, and welcome back!

I am deeply honored by the invitation to speak today. Convocation is a signal event: it officially reopens the time-honored traditions of the College and our nine-month separation from what is commonly and approvingly known as the "real" world.

That separation is deliberate. The College consciously tries to create an environment that affords a degree of thought and reflection not typically available in normal daily life. The justification for this environment is straightforward: if you exploit this environment well, you will be much better able to navigate the next 50, 60, or 70 years in the so-called real world with greater personal success and happiness.

We're often told that the real world is harsh, cold, and unforgiving, the assumption being that somehow this life of the mind in College is soft, undemanding, and indulgent. I must confess that, as someone who has been in school since I was five years old, that I find this canard infuriating. I also find it incomprehensible.

There is a "real world" out there, but there also is a manufactured one, designed to force us to submit to its terms. It is important to separate the two. One is authentic because it reflects the true nature of human existence; the other is artificial because it is only interested in making sure that we conform to its own interests, its own conceptions of what is right and wrong, and its own understanding of the purposes of power.

In my own field of international relations, events are making less and less sense to me. Nations are currently engaged in a war over imagined weapons of mass destruction, and more such wars are likely in the near future. Other nations are engaged in a series of seemingly endless wars, designed to obtain deserved peace and security but which only lead to instability and greater insecurity. We allow nations and non-nations to use the phrase "collateral damage" to describe actions that are much more accurately described as the murder of innocents. We talk about "them" and "us" as if there were entities out there who do not bleed, who do not cry, who do not laugh, and who do not love their children with every fiber of their being.

We have conversations about the fragility of the global environment as we drive around in vehicles that only aggravate the problem. Indeed, our insatiable appetite for a fuel responsible for global warming allows the energy companies to earn $1,300 in profits every second, and the CEO of ExxonMobil to earn $37,500 per hour if his total compensation were converted into a 40-hour workweek. And when the less fortunate cry out because they cannot afford fuel to transport themselves or to warm their homes, we are told to simply shrug of the seeming injustices between the rich as poor as if the trade-off between food and fuel, or medical care and heat, is simply part of the normal routine of the real world.

We allow ourselves to be terrified by tubes of lipstick, by bottles of water, by bearded men. Governments deliberately emphasize our vulnerabilities because it makes citizens more compliant making governance a less sophisticated and nuanced task. Our media are accomplices in this charade because fear sells newspapers and keeps the population glued to their television sets. We hear insipid and endless reports about the undeniably tragic death of a young girl in Colorado when there are, in fact, thousands of children who die every day from clearly preventable causes. Just go to Darfur, the Congo, Lebanon, or Haiti.

And instead of asking questions about what could make us truly safe, we become willing accomplices in the crime of forgetting, or misremembering, or lying by watching oxymoronic programs called "reality" TV, or "the Real World." Or we seek escape in the time-honored escapes of alcohol, or drugs, or mindless sex. Or we indulge in the unique American refuge of crass commercialism, where anything can be bought or sold. We live in a world with the attention span of a gerbil and the sensibility of a brick.

If the world I have just described is "real" then I do not wish to have any part of it. But don't dismiss my screed as the ramblings of an old curmudgeon. One of the most penetrating analysts of the human psyche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, outlined the dynamics of how a false world becomes real in his novel, The Brothers Karamozov.

Chapter 5 of the novel is entitled "The Grand Inquisitor." In it, one brother describes to another his story of Christ's return to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor immediately arrests Jesus, mindful of the true significance of the event. In the prison cell, the Grand Inquisitor makes this comment to Jesus:

"…. the freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago. Didst Thou not often say then, 'I will make you free?' But now Thou hast seen these 'free' men," the old man adds suddenly, with a pensive smile. "Yes, we've paid dearly for it," he goes on, looking sternly at Him, "but at last we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it's over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing."

The freedom that Dostoevsky describes is the freedom to fall to one's knees and pray directly to one's God. The problem with that freedom is that one never knows whether God has heard the prayer--one must have faith to come to that conclusion. But, as the Grand Inquisitor knows, faith is a thin reed when we are afraid. So his role as a priest is one of an intermediary, to confirm to the sinner that the plea for forgiveness has been heard and to impose a behavior designed to expunge the sin. Thus, there is no need for faith, and the uncertainty inherent in an intimate dialogue with the Almighty is erased.

We can certainly dismiss the Grand Inquisitor as an evil man, one who takes advantage of human frailty. We can also come to the same conclusion about our leaders and the media. If we end our analysis at this level, then there is little we can do until we get new leaders and new media. But, if we end our analysis at this level, there is no reason to believe that the new leaders and the new media will not employ the same strategy. The problem is not the leaders, but our willingness to believe and obey them.

No, if we wish to prevent falsehood from becoming real, we must go deeper, as does Dostoevsky.

""Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great and strong? No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them--so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie."

The Grand Inquisitor knows what he is: he is a liar. But he believes that he is motivated, not by a lust for power, but rather by compassion for humanity. He believes that humans will give up their freedoms willingly for a sense of security. He believes that a false world that promises freedom from fear is preferred to a real world riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

He is wrong.

He knows he is wrong because he knows that he himself is afraid.

He is wrong because he trusts no one.

He is wrong because he knows he cannot even trust himself.

We know what we need to do to create a real world: we must overcome fear so that we can see clearly, assess accurately, and analyze with no predetermined conclusions.

Piece of cake.

Before we talk about overcoming fear, let me first make two observations.

First, there is a real world out there that has nothing to do with a manufactured reality. Hold two fingers hard against your neck and feel your heart beat. That sensation is real, and it should bring you great comfort and peace. And there are other things and events that are in fact guileless and should be taken at face value: the laughter of an infant, the striations of a flower, the wind, the stars. All these things are real and, even though some of them are truly indifferent to our existence, they all will bring us joy and wonder--if we let them.

Second, no one is immune from fear and no one has escaped its ravages. Note that I talk about overcoming fear, not banishing it or eliminating it. This assembly, for example, is filled with individuals--faculty, students, and staff--who all share a particular fear: the fear of all overachievers that they will be discovered as frauds. We all somehow believe that we are here because of a mistake.

We are keenly aware of how frightened and insecure we each are, but we perceive others as blissfully self-confident, cool, calm, and collected.

Hogwash.

I have yet to meet anyone--myself included--who was not, at some deep level, gripped by insecurity. I have known, however, many individuals who disguise their fears brilliantly, even to themselves. Fear is endemic, it is pervasive, and it is contagious.

But I have known many individuals who have wrestled this demon and kept it down long enough to realize their fuller potentials. How did they do it?

They came to a place like Mount Holyoke College. And overcoming your fear-demon is your most important task while you are here.

The first step is to acquire more knowledge about the world. It is astonishing how quickly solid information can dissipate fear. There is a world of difference between believing that a plague is simply the wrath of a vengeful and capricious God and knowing that flea bites are something to avoid. By entering this College you have given up your right to be ignorant, and we will not allow you to indulge that vice.

The second step is to mistrust the knowledge of others. Many times, and increasingly more frequently, what is peddled as knowledge is simply wishful thinking, crassly self-interested, or woefully ignorant. I know how paralyzing contradictory information can be, but one needs to be able to cross-check what one is told and to develop the ability to assess the validity of sources and information.

This second step is called analysis and it is the most important skill you will develop here at Mount Holyoke College. We never have all the information we need to make a decision, and we never will be able to trust fully the information available to us. But if we believe that we can only make a decision with complete and wholly accurate information then we never make a decision. The ability to assess, evaluate, and to expose unrevealed connections between bits of information is the highest power of the human mind, and you should be deliberate and completely focused on developing this talent while you are here.

The third step, after you've gathered enough knowledge and developed your analytical skills, is to learn how to trust yourself. This step is the most difficult one, and it is the stage where great potential is often lost.

Trusting oneself does not mean that one needs to believe that one is correct in one's analysis. Too often, we get hung up on trying to prove that we are right and that someone else is wrong. This exercise is a complete and utter waste of time and leads to all sorts of perverted behavior which you can witness every night on the news media as the various talking heads yell at each other, ignore each other's questions, refuse to listen carefully to what each other has to say, and generally resort to primitive and barbaric forms of behavior. It is nothing more than the World Wrestling Federation in suits and ties.

Trusting oneself simply means that one has made a disciplined, concerted and good faith attempt to understand a complicated matter. If someone agrees with your analysis, you've got some limited confirmation of your analysis depending on how thoughtful and informed that person may be. If someone disagrees with your analysis, it simply means that you should listen carefully to the grounds of disagreement, and remain completely open to the possibility that you might have to revise your analysis. If the basis of disagreement seems compelling, then you've learned something and your analysis will be more solid. If the basis of the disagreement is thoughtless or ideological, then politely excuse yourself and find someone else more interesting with whom to talk.

Learning how to trust oneself is very difficult and demanding work. As I indicated, you don't need to think to yourself that you are right; you just need to be able to say I tried my very best to figure this problem out. If you're not willing to make that effort, then you should sincerely think about going to another college--there are plenty that require little work and hold lots of parties. But no matter how fast you try run away from yourself, you will always hear the sound of your own footsteps.

In the end, you have no choice. Who are you going to trust? The Grand Inquisitor?

Whose mistakes do you wish to make: yours or Condoleezza Rice's?

Whose life do you wish to realize: yours or Britney Spears?

Mount Holyoke College is brilliantly positioned to help you in these three tasks. It obviously cannot accomplish them for you--only you can make the decision to become a thoughtful, informed person. But with its resources and the astonishing commitment of the faculty and staff, it can help you navigate this treacherous terrain.

And if things don't go as well as you would have liked, don't be discouraged. The College believes firmly that each of you is unique and precious. But it will not make the assumption that you are all equally talented. That assumption is false and tells you absolutely nothing about yourselves. In my first term at college I received three grades (Dartmouth was on a trimester system): an A in American Government, a C in Introduction to Philosophy, and a D in introductory German. After licking my wounds as a consummate overachiever, I managed to persuade myself that Phi Beta Kappa was not all that important anyway, that the Philosophy Professor was a jerk, and that the study of Government was something I might be very good at. All three decisions were good ones for me.

There is one more thing you must do this year, and it is something the College really can't help you accomplish. You must all learn how not to take life and your own lives so seriously.

You are incessantly bombarded by the screaming meemies of the so-called real world by demands that you must do this or you must do that if you are going to be successful. Understand that most of these people are really not interested in your welfare, but rather in their own: you are simply a way for them to make money, or feel self-important, or to justify their own pathetic existences.

Because we don't think we can afford to not believe them, we add on all sorts of new obligations and commitments, many of which do nothing to make us happier or to give meaning to our lives. Indeed, because we are all overachievers here we believe that if we don't take on these commitments that we have somehow failed.

Understand what a bad game this is: all the things you've accomplished in your lives are meaningless because of all the things you haven't yet accomplished. Believe this proposition and you're always going to be a dime short on your nickel bet.

There is a lot to do, but you must decide your own priorities. If you find yourself saying something ridiculous like everything is equally important, then you'll know that you've lost yourself and are living out someone else's life.

There is a particularly obnoxious form of this disease at Mount Holyoke College. Some students and faculty here often compete to prove how miserable they are. These are the people who, when you ask them how they are doing, quickly launch into the list of impossible tasks before them, and moan about how they are the only ones doing any work.

Avoid these people like the plague, and if you find yourself falling into their ranks, go out and eat the largest hot fudge sundae you can find. We all have a lot to do, but I've never met anyone who could do more than one thing at a time. Once you've finished that task, then go on to your next priority. The point is not to necessarily make our lists shorter, but to make sure that we are in control of our lists, and that our lists do not control us.

But you cannot realize these aspirations if you think that everything is deadly serious.

We work hard because work is ennobling and it is the most effective way to avoid the angst of excessive introspection.

We work hard because hard work is the only way to accomplish anything of value.

And because we work hard, we earn the right to laugh at the cosmic absurdities of life.

And there are a lot of them.

The biggest impediments to working well are stress, anxiety, despair, and nervousness. These are problems you create for yourselves and they are not intrinsic parts of hard work. The only way to dismiss these feelings is to laugh at them--they are, in fact, defeated quite easily by a good joke, a stupid act, or a good case of the giggles.

The modern day Grand Inquisitors will tell you that if you don't vote for them, you will die. That if you don't buy their product, you will die. That if you don't buy their book, you will die. That if you don't buy their deodorant, you will die. That if you don't believe what they want you to believe, then you will die.

Don't let this happen. Arm yourselves with knowledge, with the ability to assess conflicting information, and an unerring trust that no matter what happens, you will be able to deal with anything. After all, we cannot control the world (nor should we desire to do so). But we can control our reactions to the world. And if someone is lying to you, it's time to turn your back on them.

And while this moron is chattering at you, remember that there is in fact a real world out there.

That at that very moment, stars are being born and stars are dying.

That there are violent storms occurring all over the planet, and that there are places where the sun is shining, where warm breezes are flowing, and where everything is peaceful and quiet.

That at that very moment, there are people lashing out at each other in mindless rage, consumed by a sense of loss, betrayal, and anger they themselves do not fathom or comprehend. And that there are, at that very moment, two lovers trembling in each other's arms in their first intimate embrace.

And that at that very moment there is an elderly woman sobbing quietly into her hands because her helpmate of many years has passed from this life and she cannot even begin to imagine how she can carry on. But also that, at that very moment, there is a mother holding her baby for the first time, amazed at the miracle of life.

And if the Grand Inquisitor slinks into your jail cell, and promises you perfect peace if only you submit to his demands, then remember your response.

That you are a Mount Holyoke woman who has wrestled her demons down.

That you are not seeking peace and comfort, but rather truth and integrity.

That the prison you currently endure is infinitely preferable to the prison of submission to his demands.

And that you will never take any action that compromises in any way your ability to become the person you wish to become.

Then laugh in the face of that crotchety old fool, and watch him slip into oblivion.

Peace be with you all.

Related Links:

Joanne V. Creighton Convocation Address

Penny Silveira Convocation Address

Jo Jensen '07 Convocation Address

Listen to Jo Jensen's Speech (6.8MB.MP3)

Convocation 2006