Thomas W. Smith, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences
2020 Freshman Convocation Remarks
Sept. 16, 2020
This morning I’d like to tell you why I didn’t marry Brooke Shields.
Since you’re much younger than I am, you might not know who Brooke Shields is. Back in the early 80’s when I went off to college, she was a famous model and actress. She was the “it” girl when I was your age.
When I entered college, I wanted to marry Brooke Shields and become a United Stated Senator. I never dated Brooke. I never even met her, although as a sophomore I did get set up on a date with Lori Laughlin, Aunt Becky from Full House. Lori just got sentenced to jail. So I guess it’s good that didn’t work out. But as odd as it might sound, I had this plan to marry Brooke.
I thought I was in love. I’d never met Brooke, so clearly that wasn’t true. I guess what I really loved was the idea I had of her. This famous, glamorous, beautiful woman represented happiness or joy or bliss or something like that for me. She represented the fulfillment of a longing I couldn’t put my finger on. Looking back Brooke and her beauty and wealth and fame stood in for my heart’s desire. I projected all my youthful longing onto this unattainable beauty.
And she was unattainable. Clearly. She’s way out of my league. Of course, that’s the reason I never married her. But the other part of the plan was to become a Senator. If I could find a way to do that, I figured, I could get Brooke. Or whatever Brooke represented – I could be powerful and famous and so reach my heart’s desire.
You can probably see right through 18 year old me. My desire for Brooke and my desire to be a Senator was not about loving a particular woman and it wasn’t about serving my country. It was all about me.
I want you to pay attention to that. The simple fact of the matter is, back then I didn’t know what I wanted. But I knew that my longing for happiness was so powerful, so strong, that it had no definable limits. I think St. Augustine is right that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. We’re created for an infinite goodness, so it makes sense that our desire for joy is infinite.
So in the face of this, I thought that if I had enough power, status, and wealth, I could get what I longed for, whatever that was.
Then in sophomore year something strange happened. I read Plato’s Republic with a great Jesuit teacher. In the Republic Socrates has a conversation with a young man who had the same kind of ambitions that I did. This young man – Thrasymachus – thought that acquiring power, influence, wealth, and status would enable him to get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it.
But Socrates’ response brought me up short. Look, he said to Thrasymachus. You’re attracted to a life of power because it seems to allow you to get what you want. But what do you want in the first place? People want all sorts of things, and some of the things we want turn out to be really bad for us. So getting power, or prestige or wealth doesn’t solve the problem of happiness. It might make actually matters worse.
Suddenly, I realized that my real problem was that I had no idea what I wanted – and that I was running away from that by thinking that power and wealth and status were a kind of magic bullet.
Socrates was helping me see that my desire for these things was really caused by my refusal to admit that I didn’t know who I was or what would make me happy. I wanted these things because I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t know how to get whatever that was.
And Socrates also helped me see that there was a completely different approach available to me – a much better approach. He helped me see that the right response to being ignorant is to seek knowledge. If you realize you don’t know what your heart’s desire is, then the only thing that makes sense is to actually try to figure out what your heart’s desire is.
In short, I realized that to resolve the mystery of my life, I needed to become a seeker. A seeker after my own good. Therefore a seeker after myself.
So I decided to go into the academic life to become a seeker and to share whatever I discovered with my students. Around the same time, I fell in love with the woman who became my wife. Another woman who was out of my league. But somehow she fell in love with me too. And we got married and had a family.
And as I fell in love with a real woman and loved my family and got good at teaching and got to know and love my students, I realized that the meaning of my life didn’t come from focusing on myself. It came from focusing on good things outside myself. One of the central paradoxes of life is that you can only become happy by seeking happiness in things outside of yourself.
I’m not saying you should follow my path. You shouldn’t. My path is mine and your path is yours. But you can be a seeker as a lawyer or doctor or accountant. Or working in a garage. Seekers come in all shapes and sizes.
The way I came into college is fairly typical. Young people are told to go off to college and get a degree that will provide the credential necessary for prestige and wealth and social status. Of course, we want you to be successful. I’m not telling you not to get a good job. I’m not telling you to forget about money or your position in the community.
But still, one of the most important things for you to realize at this moment in your life as you sit here right now is that you don’t really know who you are and what you really want. So you don’t really know what success looks like for you yet. That’s OK. If you knew these things you wouldn’t need an education. Showing up at university is an admission you don’t know. Don’t be freaked out by that; you’re not supposed to know. That’s the whole reason you’re here.
So your biggest job right now is to face that realization. Not to dodge it by declaring a major you think people want you to declare, or settle on this or that identity or this or that activity ore resume that you think will get you ahead.
Don’t settle for anything less than seeking after your heart’s desire. Only seeking truth can set you free from ignorance. Power can’t do it. A high paying job can’t do it. Fame and status can’t either. If you don’t become a seeker, how are you going to be able to know what to do with the success that’s coming your way in the first place?
At this moment in the history of our country, I want to take special pains to emphasize that this kind of education is open to you here at CUA, regardless of your race or creed or country of origin or class.
To underline that point, as I close this morning, I’m going to invite you to read a classic about the meaning of liberal education – The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. It was written by an educated man who never went to college.
The Narrative is about Douglas’ life as a slave and his ambition to become a free man. Of course, freedom for him means freedom from bondage. But as the book goes on, it also becomes about freedom from the ignorance that slavery imposed on him. Douglas moves from this imposed ignorance – he doesn’t know his birthday, or how to find himself on a map, or who his father is – to a richer, clearer sense of who he is and what his life is all about. He learns to read and write, and after many hardships flees slavery and attains the dignity of a seeker. And he finds that his hard won wisdom allows him to do great things.
Douglas never went to college, but he got a real education. And this it allowed him to become one of our greatest Americans. His liberation from ignorance allowed him to find his life’s work – to help abolish the scourge of slavery and show us the way forward for us as a nation.
Douglas was successful in his own way and on his own terms. He knew himself and his own mind. He didn’t listen to people who told him he should know his place. He knew who he was and that empowered him to live out his inner greatness.
This is the kind of education I want each of you to have. Don’t live someone else’s life. Don’t be afraid of not knowing who you are and what you want out of life right now. Don’t settle for conventional ambitions. Use your education to become a seeker so you can find out the truth about yourself and the world around you. Use your time here to start to figure all this out.
Seek and seek and seek the truth. Seek it and it will make you great. It will allow you to find your life’s work and understand who and what you’re meant to love and who you’re meant to become.
We wish you every success in your search and are here to walk alongside you on your path. Always. In every way we can.