Tuesdays in the Chapel
May 10, 2016
From What We Forgot to Tell You
By Peter Gomes
“The first thing you should know is that you will make mistakes , and coming (to MIT) might be one of your biggest. Neither education nor religion will make you immune to errors and mistakes, and if you think about it, both education and religion exist on the presupposition of the inevitability of mistakes. Education is instruction in the art of distinguishing between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, and we need error in education in order to discern truth. Religion is not simply the way in which we should go, but what we should do when inevitably we don’t go that way. That is what religion is all about; it is not a formula for the perfect but for the imperfect.
Finally, …I would ask you to remember because we didn’t think to tell you much about it, is that the ultimate goal of life ought not to be victory, nor power, nor riches, nor fame, although Harvard students get these in abundance. When you read the Fifth Reunion report, … they all have accounts of these things heaped up in abundance, buy the older the report and the shorter the account, the more the emphasis is placed on things like contentment, serenity, inner peace, and satisfaction. (p. 286-287)
Our time together these past weeks has been focused on what we would like to see the future look like. It has been a smorgasbord of insights and viewpoints. We have been reminded about the denial of death and the challenge of autism; emotions have been often raw and we have been reminded that we do not talk often together about the challenges of our work and lives. We are after all occasional friends coming together at random enjoying communion over coffee and donut holes.
Today we are here to hear last words. This is the last week of classes and we meet only when class is in session a concession to the hope that students would join us, but that has not happened. And it is probably for the better, as these moments have become important times for those who can make their schedules work. Whether we gather in the fall will not be my call.
I turned to my late friend Peter Gomes for our reading. He reminds us of things we do not talked about. The search for meaning is one side of a coin on which the other is the search for truth. Both embrace the notion that we will often make mistakes. The ongoing conversation about the Green Line extension is an unusual public discussion of mistakes made and the effort to not let those failures stop an otherwise needed project. We have engaged in some similar conversations these last days about our own failures in building housing for our students. But we will still need dormitories and those willing to make commitments to the education that occur in residence. We learn from our mistakes
As case in point is the installation on the grounds formally occupied by Bexley Hall. Sunday afternoon the elaborate and interesting piece blew down and I learned from talking with those who were given the task of figuring out what happened that they would learn far more the failure than they would have learned had all gone well. Architects regard the learning process as shaped by learning from miscalculations. So should we all.
And we are most human when we let the barriers down and talk together about what we have learned in reflection over coffee; I hope those moments continue. We need them. Peter Gomes offers wise counsel when he talks about religious sentiment.
But the key remains our ability to create communities of conversation where we can grow together. It is a simple notion but of profound importance in a place where standards are high, our efforts are flawed and we are tasked with showing the way for the next generation.
And finally, what is it all about? Some of us will settle for the exercise of power. We see that in the political conversation that occupies such a public place in our lives today. Dissatisfaction with our inability to solve problems that have dogged human kind since our origins has boiled over into rhetoric that vents but does not heal.
And all the while we each go about dealing with the daily tasks of caring for the children we bring into this world; drop Stephanie Kloos Smith a note if you have a moment congratulating her on her first Mother’s Day. Or the children we have inherited as part of our work together. Or the relationships we nourish in our lives beyond MIT.
You think about those things as the clock ticks as careers wind down and you try to measure what you have done in your work. That has been on my mind of late as I move toward retiring. There are so many things I would have done differently so there is comfort in talking about mistakes and reflecting on those things that are most important.
And the satisfaction comes with knowing we have done the best we could and that is good enough.
I am grateful to those who have spent Tuesday mornings here. Now let’s talk over coffee!
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute