Well, ready or not, here we are again at the start of a new academic year. Graduation may seem a long way away — and it is if you consider all that you will learn and all the friendships you will make between now and then — but I have been working on college campuses for long enough to tell you that your time at Duke will also be short.
I say this partly in light of the Common Experience book "The Measure," with its plot premise of all adults in the world receiving a string that shows how long their lives will be. As we follow the characters in the novel, we learn that some of them are “short–stringers” — that is, people who have learned in advance that their lives will be cut short. The drama of the book stems from this revelation. How do you live if you know your time is short? How do love if you know your beloved’s time is limited?
These are important questions to ponder during your time at Duke. I hope you consider them during classroom discussions. I hope you raise them during late-night discussions in your quads. I hope you come to Duke Chapel and meditate on them (the Chapel is open to all every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.).
I don’t have final answers to these questions, but I would like to suggest two places to start.
First, we are all “short-stringers.” Even if we end up living a long time, our lives are still short in the scheme of things — and often shorter than we think. This is sobering. I know students whose lives were snatched in tragic car accidents, colleagues who suddenly stopped breathing at an office desk and other sad and shocking situations. I’m thinking about all of this again as I recently sat in yet another funeral, this time for the mother of a member of Duke’s housekeeping staff.
In the Bible, this truth is put poetically in a Psalm (103:15-16): “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”
Another way to say this is: Countdown to Craziness doesn’t last forever!
The talk of death on the first day of class is pretty somber, so I want to offer something hopeful. This brings me to my second point. In the time that you have at Duke and on this earth, aim to make a life. Notice that I did not say “make a living;” to make a life is different from making a living.
Don’t just pad your resume, search for the highest paying job, long to be in a popular fraternity, sacrifice your health with all-nighters or neglect your loves and hobbies. You can try to make a living but still have no life. You can gain everything and still feel a sense of loss. Often, it is because you’ve lost your life in the process. So be present each day to yourself and others because tomorrow isn’t promised to you. Make a life; a whole life, not a ‘hole’ life that has a huge gap because you’re hollow inside.
As you start this semester, be ready to learn, ready to grow, ready to have new experiences. What are your joys? Engage them. What are your loves? Attend to them. Laugh. Play. Sing. Dance. Make a life that is more than another lab report or research paper.
Don’t just exist this school year. Live.
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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