This week I have been watching seabirds, looking in particular for jumplings, those hair-raising young guillemots plunging from their nests on the cliffs. The Isle of May blog makes a great show of the guillemot dive: check it out here.
When I’ve written about Graduation before I have been aware of the uncertainties around what graduating actually does. Here I suggested the work the student has done allows their standing to be recognised. The academic exercises, successfully completed, bring about a recognition that this person or that has done the job they set out to do, but I also pointed out there is more than this. It is about belonging.
If, as I have suggested before, this is about
our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better placeBellous, J (2019) An inclusive spiritual education. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2019.1675603
then we are engaged in a spiritual practice when we graduate our students. It may not feel like it during an Examination Committee, or even listening to the (sometimes) not sparkling celebrity speaker, but we do also participate in representing part of the project the students have joined us in.
As David Lodge, in discussing Finals writes that even the word
implies that nothing of importance can happen after it.David Lodge: Changing Places
So what do we do when we graduate students? Are we watching set them sail? Is all this ceremony just the waving of hankies on the quai? [Cue: picture of quaiside]…
I have friends leaving their posts at Brookes this summer who will leave after a quick drink and a present, but I am conscious of the wistfulness of these passages of time, of Alcuin missing the Sacra Iuventus… Should we say goodbye with more ceremony? With less, but more intimacy? Something that says “you still belong”? What does that belonging consist of? What survives beyond the handing-back of the hired gown, the shelving of the retirement gift?
It is a leaving home experience to some extent, but in both cases it has an important difference: If, as the saying goes, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the leave-taking of graduation and retirement are different in that there is no necessary return. The last pay slip (electronic or otherwise), the outcome of the final examination committee – and then what?
Pastoral and management roles cease to have meaning. Là ! C’est fini pour Antigone. I have used Anouilh before and won’t labour the point; the things that most mean we belong become threadbare, almost meaningless. Or at least the structural, institutional things do.
But belonging is subtler than the Alumni email, sweeter, even than the gift at retirement: it is a net of memory and relationship that can go beyond the BA photo, the rose bush or signed book. To finish, then, here is a thought or two from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.
Many people become extremely dependent on a daily “fix” of superficial contacts…
And (a little later) he tells us that, beyond the validation of one’s own sense of self brought about by these smaller, casual congenial interactions, it is the deeper friendship that has the greater power:
There are few things as enjoyable as freely sharing one’s most secret feelings and thoughts with another person. Even though this sounds like a commonplace, it in fact requires concentrated attention, openness and sensitivity.Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: Enjoying Friends
So that is what we might prepare for on both leave-takings: I am not suggesting that university courses or jobs should be a sort of dating service (although sometimes it is!) but that the favourable connections I mentioned earlier need to be stressed. For graduands and people approaching retirement alike, when we make that guillemot-like leap from the cliff, we need to prepare by acknowledging the emotional connections and think about how to sustain them – and institutions (and their members?) maybe need to think beyond the check-out.
Plenty of important stuff is, we’d hope, still to come: what we take with us – again, we’d hope – is our friendships. Maybe even here
What will survive of us is love.