I attended an awards ceremony Friday night at a high school in the Bay Area. It was for the school’s Theatre and Music Departments and my granddaughter, who is all about drama, won two awards. In typical family fashion, she was very funny, commenting on her competition and the award itself. She gets such wit from my maternal grandmother, who passed it along to my mother, who gave it to me, and so on.
Caution: you have to be careful with wit, since a quick wit can quickly become quicksand. Thankfully, my granddaughter kept it light, positive, and, most importantly, short.
But something one of the other award recipients said got me thinking. She said that a fellow actor, a graduating senior, had been such a tremendous influence on her that she was sure he would go on to transform the world “the way you have transformed me.” It was authentic, and she was not the only one who spoke in terms of transforming the world. That might be standard fare at graduation ceremonies and, thus, easily dismissed, but it made me think of two things.
The first, ego driven, was my declaration out of college that I wanted to “bury Shakespeare,” meaning that I wanted to be such a great writer that people would forget all about the Bard. It’s nice to have goals, even competitive ones, but mine was as embarrassing as it was unrealistic. It didn’t seem so at the time, of course, especially since I was surrounded by English majors. Other majors, like chemistry, didn’t appear to have that problem, although later on I met a biologist who lamented not winning a Nobel Prize by the time he was forty-five.
For most of these drama and music students, talk about transforming the world is similar to burying Shakespeare or winning a Nobel Prize, since I suspect they have little idea of the competition they face and the long road ahead of them. If they do get to the end of that road, they may find that they are no longer interested in changing the world as much as one person, which brings us back to the student’s comment about her friend. They may discover the difference between transformation and fame, between changing the world and the Cult of Celebrity where the world changes you or at least indulges your baser drives and desires.
The second thing I thought of was the injunction, often attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, ite, inflammate omnia (go, set the world on fire). It is not a battle cry for political action but a call to change the world through peaceful, prayerful, and personal work that inflames one heart at a time. If it is a theological tenet that the Kingdom of God will not be established before the Second Coming, it is also true that we cannot and should not stop preparing for it.
Speaking of political action, this past May marked the fiftieth anniversary of the protests throughout France, especially in Paris, against the Vietnam War, capitalism, and a university system that many students believed no longer served the needs of society. This represents a different kind of setting the world on fire, a literal one (Parisians are known for their barricades). To be sure, these were Marxist-inspired protests (Leonid Breznev must have been pleased), and one looks back on them now with their North Vietnamese flags and red banners with the same sort of embarrassment as my burying Shakespeare comment.
Still, if I had to rank ways of setting the world on fire, I would put Ignatius first, May 1968 second (sometimes a revolution is needed), and the celebrity cult with Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry et alia at the bottom of the list. In fact, they’re not even on the list. With an estimated, net fortune of $500 million, Beyoncé wouldn’t have been welcome at the barricades.
This is graduation season, and there will be many awards handed out. There also will be much talk about changing the world, transformation, and seizing the moment. Not to worry. There is a bromide for these bromides. It is this: the world does not change and will not change because we will it. In fact, it is the height of arrogance to think so. What can change and what may change is one human heart. That, in itself, would be extraordinary.
It may even be worth an award.
You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Middle stage photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels.