Speech by Anders O. Hendrickson
At the initiation held on April 13, 2000, Anders O. Hendrickson ’00, a fall initiate and winner of the Tosdal Award, delivered the following address to new members in course:
Welcome to Phi Beta Kappa!
This is something of a strange institution–a society whose primary (and oftentimes only) function is to induct new members, to honor students who have distinguished themselves by their work. Today, you are receiving this great honor; today your achievements at St. Olaf College are formally recognized. Many people during this ceremony and at the banquet later tonight will praise you. But if you are like me, this praise may make you feel a little uncomfortable, especially if you share the Norwegian-Lutheran heritage of our school. Walking across this stage, receiving the ancient and venerable secret handshake, approaching the candles to inscribe your name in the Book of the Elect–or Book of the Elite, it might seem–somehow I think this would seem foreign to my Norwegian-American grandparents who have farmed quietly for fifty years, or to Berndt Julius Muus and the other stern-faced pioneers who founded this college one hundred twenty-five years ago
To those reverend persons (at least as we picture them now), humility was a way of life–and that lifestyle has made its mark on us, as well. One time at my grandparents’ house, I was telling my family about the time when the poet Maya Angelou came to St. Olaf. I mentioned that I was a little taken aback by her encouragement to praise oneself, to be proud of oneself. I could see why, as an African-American woman in the United States, her experience had revealed that she could not rely on anyone else for that support; nevertheless, the thought of praising oneself made me uncomfortable. It was my father who explained my discomfort by saying, “Well, I’ve always thought that’s what other people are there for.” That is, we should not praise ourselves, but we should praise others and they should praise us, “each thinking humbly of others as superior to him- or herself,” as St. Paul puts it.
But even accepting others’ praise can be difficult. What do you do when someone tries to honor you, tries to praise you? If you accept the praise, you are admitting that it is accurate, that you do in fact deserve honor–and this can feel quite close to self-praise. When Jesus cured illnesses, he commanded those newly healed not to tell anyone Who had helped them; if Our Lord sought to avoid praise while He was on earth, how much more should we avoid honors! But if instead of accepting praise, we decline, or mutter something unintelligible, or look disturbed, we create an awkward situation. When we do so, we deprive others of the joy of honoring us, of the great joy of praising someone who has done well. To think nothing of our own accomplishments is usually an excellent way to train our souls in humility; but when someone else praises our accomplishments, to make light of those accomplishments is to say, “No, you’re wrong.”
And yet it almost seems that we must decline out of sheer honesty. We cannot accept these honors, for we do not deserve the credit: all the accomplishments and virtues for which we are praised are not our doing, but God’s. Our contribution has been, at most, managing not to squander too badly the resources and talents He has given us.
But therein lies the solution.
We can accept praises and honors gracefully by knowing that, in reality, the honor flows through us to our Maker. In being honored, we become instruments on which those honoring us play the praises of God, whether they know it or not. Even if someone admiring the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel hated Michelangelo, or thought he was a bad painter, or even did not believe that he existed, still that person’s praise would flow through the painting to the artist. In the same way, when we are honored, we can give an opportunity to praise God even to those who do not know Him.
So welcome to Phi Beta Kappa. Come sign the book, learn the secret handshake, and be joyful–for tonight you’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to bring honor to God.