President’s speech: “Living the Core”

Opening Convocation of the 2008-2009 academic year, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008 at Sauder Concert Hall.

Welcome (back) to Goshen College. Did you know that almost everything you learn in the first year will be outdated by the time you are juniors? Sorry seniors! (Back to square one). We live in such a rapidly changing world that it’s almost impossible to keep up with the data flow. Did you know, for example, that:

  • The number of text messages sent and received each day exceeds the total population of the planet? That may not be you in particular, but my teenage son, perhaps.
  • There are about five times as many words in the English language today as there were in the time of Shakespeare?
  • That this week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to know in their entire lifetime in the 18th century?
  • If MySpace were a country it would be the 11th largest country in the world?

If sheer information overload isn’t overwhelming enough for you, maybe you feel a bit like 2, 253 of your fellow undergraduate college students who were interviewed last March for an Associated Press survey. In this survey, they indicated that many college students are stressed out. Some were so frazzled and overwhelmed they couldn’t sleep or eat. Or study. (AP article, Pantagraph.com, March 19, 2008).

No doubt, some of you have felt or feel overwhelmed about leaving your families, about grades, relationships, time-management, majors, body image, identity, the job market, spiritual commitments. Some of the students in the survey were even stressed thinking about spring break, where they would go.

Sometimes college life can be a bit overwhelming. For that matter, all of life can be. No one knows this more than Justin Timberlake. He recently said, “Every relationship I’ve been in lately, I’ve overwhelmed the girl. They just can’t handle all the love!” Too much love, too much knowledge, too much to think about? . . . It can all be so overwhelming. As the old joke asks, “How many college students does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Two; one to change the light bulb and one to crack under the pressure.

In all honesty, at Goshen College we cannot shield you from many of life’s pressures or the questions you may have or may come to have about life, about yourself, your relationships, or your faith. Nor would we necessarily want to shield you from all those pressures. The exciting part about college, in general, and Goshen College, in particular, is we do promise to offer provide you with the (sacred) space to explore the very areas of life that may seem overwhelming to you. And we promise to do so in a caring learning community that very much wants for you to succeed in college and in life. To help put life it in perspective, a bit, at Goshen College, we invite you to consider “living the core” while you are here and long after you leave. What do I mean by “living the core?”

II.

Before answering that question, I need to remind us of some basic facts of life, the birds and bees of existence, that influence how we at Goshen College frame the teaching and learning experience.

Hundreds of years before Christ, both Greek and Indian philosophers imagined a core to existence made up of elemental, eensy, teensy bits of matter that were indivisible, and could be labeled the foundation blocks of the universe. The Greeks named this basic building block, the atom, which literally means that which is “uncuttable”. Of course, they had no idea that modern science would eventually measure the average atom to be plus or minus 2 hundred millionths of a centimeter and that the atom would be further subdivided into even smaller particles called Fermions, Hadrons, quarks, leptons and bosons — to say nothing of antimatter or antiparticles and their mysterious qualities.

As learning and thinking humans, we have always sought to find the foundational core of our existence, the core of our universe, the core-self — thinking that if only we could get to the core, we could explain the universe as it truly is. We supposed, then, that logic would lead us up from that foundational core, from leptons to atoms to molecules on up the chain of cause and effect to, finally, us, homo sapiens (the “knowing ones”), the crown jewel of nature.

The problem with all such quests that set out to find the core of life, the core of the universe, the core of the self, the core of anything really, has been a bit like peeling the layers of an onion and finding that the core of the onion is simply just another layer. In the first Shrek movie, remember when Shrek was trying to explain to Donkey the nuanced essence of an Ogre? He said, “Ogres are like onions. They both have layers.” To which Donkey, replied, “Oh I get it. You leave them out in the sun too long and they go all brown and start sprouting little white hairs.” Had donkey read Gertrude Stein, he might have said of Shrek’s comparing himself to an onion, if you peel all your layers down to the core, you discover in Stein’s oft quoted phrase, “There is no there there.” No core there!

I have a dear friend, Alexander Grunewald, a neuroscientist at Cal Tech, later at University of Madison. He and I co-led a religion and science forum for two years at Cal Tech, while we both lived in Pasadena. We had wonderful conversations about the connection between the mind and the body, the brain and the mind. We wondered whether or not one could even speak of a core-self. He would point out that “our sense of who we are” — that is our identity — is a product of the biological processes of the brain. A person who is brain-damaged, for example, can lose their self-awareness completely. He argued that when we speak of a self, biologically speaking, we speak primarily of a bundle of thoughts, feelings, emotions, electrical impulses overseen by some vaporous “I.” At any one moment, the core-self is pretty much in the mind — a transient set of impulses that are recreated moment by moment with each interaction between a bunch of programmed brain cells mapping to body movement and stimulation. There is no biological core-self, per se.

His colleague in the field, Dr. Antonio Damasio, describes the sense of self as being created through memory, and storytelling and imagination — what we call the autobiographical self. Dr. Paul Broks, another neurologist, calls this sense of self the “novelistic self” and believes that any ‘core self’ is fundamentally an “act of imagination.” We are the tales we tell (or are told to us). (Broks, Paul, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, is there anyone there at all?” TIMESONLINE, Sept. 20, 2005).

Categories: President, Speeches