A Reflection Upon Reunion
This spring Steve Marsh ’98 gathered with scores of his St. Olaf classmates as they celebrated their 25th reunion on the Hill. An accomplished journalist and senior writer at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, he delivered a speech reflecting on what a St. Olaf education looks like in hindsight. He shares an excerpt here.
IN PREPARING THIS SPEECH, I tapped my own text chain of St. Olaf buddies. I asked what I should talk about and what they thought about this place 25 years later. I was moved when one of them texted: “When I was 19 years old, I don’t think I was mature enough to realize what this institution could do for me.” I recognized in his words my own immaturity, and how that manifested itself back then in feelings of rebellion toward St. Olaf itself. It was and is a small liberal arts school, informed by the Lutheran, Norwegian immigrant values of southern Minnesota. A 19-year-old could feel stifled by those kinds of rules, even if you had agreed to follow them.
And those adolescent frustrations were contrasted against what we came here to do. Yes, St. Olaf could be protective, but it brought us into the midst of very worldly, modern, challenging ideas — ideas taught in every classroom, ideas found all over the library. I remember my guidance counselor at the time, Professor Jim Farrell — God rest his soul — gave me advice that’s informed my entire life. I was worried about how I could get all of my electives taken care of, and he said, “Just follow your curiosity and you’ll be fine.”
St. Olaf brought me to huge ideas like how we build meaning through narrative, and how we construct ideas like time and gender and love from language. It gave me tools I could use to critically think about my life. These ideas were brought to me on this little hill in southern Minnesota. And then the college encouraged me to study abroad. It pushed us out the door to search the places where many of these huge ideas originated.
I wondered if you guys shared this push and pull relationship with St. Olaf — if you felt any kind of rebellious feelings toward it, but also these feelings of gratitude. The same guy who told me that he maybe wasn’t mature enough to take advantage of all that was offered at the time said “But I met you guys — I made friends that became lifelong friends.”
After texting my classmates, I reached out to my mentor, Professor Gordon Marino. Doc retired as curator of the Kierkegaard Library last August after 30 years. I only had one J-term Freud class with him at St. Olaf, but Doc is also a boxing coach and a journalist, and for years after graduation, I continued to learn from him through our conversations about existentialism, about boxing, about dealing with your childhood trauma, and about growing up. (If you haven’t read Doc’s The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, you probably should.) As much as I instinctually rebel against the term “mentor,” yeah, I have a mentor. I told him what I was thinking of talking about, and he sent me this passage from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love:
“Expectancy and possibility develop in the young like precious myrrh, exuding from the trees of Arabia. But when a man has grown older, his life usually remains what it already has become, a dull repetition and re-writing of the same, and no possibility arouses one to wakefulness, and no possibility exhilarates the renewal of youth, hope becomes something which nowhere has a home, and possibility a rarity like greenness in winter.”
Kierkegaard reminds us that as we age, the dreams we once dreamt on this hill can fade in the face of disappointment and grief. Maybe your talents aren’t matched to your circumstances, or you made a mistake that you can’t recover from. And I wonder sometimes if that rebellious attitude of my youth was more of a generational attitude toward authority and institutions, an attitude that’s maybe calcified into something else now. Maybe you’ve felt irritated when confronted with the nomenclature of a younger co-worker or friend, or even your own child’s. But there has to be a way to maintain a tenderness and curiosity of thought, a way to stay humble and to keep moving toward curiosity, instead of giving in to cynicism. Because to give in, to lose your curiosity, that’s what makes you old.
So as Doc would say, it’s a fight. Maybe those rebellious instincts can be repurposed. Maybe being a rebel at this age means sticking together, and staying organized, and keeping in good mental shape, and being willing to reach out, and to ask questions, and to actually listen when somebody answers.