Fear is a fickle thing to which the famous 4 F’s of the brain’s hypothalamus do scanty justice. Besides fight, food, fucking, and flight, limbic fear also propels us over mountainous humps we’d have hitherto imagined as insurmountable. So it was with trepidation that I took the stage along with my graduating cohort at the AU convocation of 2014. Presently my chair neighbour asked of me a harmless, yet utterly sublime question: “So what are you going to be when you grow up?” As the saying goes, we’re never more than four feet from a spider and, surely, never more than a thought away from pondering the big arcing narrative that is our lives. Fear of public events thus melded with a broader fear of the future.
What indeed to be, and who! We both laughed; moments like these come around rarely in life. Weddings, funerals, passport photos, graduations, mug shots perhaps; times when time itself stands still as recorded by technology and our minds. These are times when we are wont to ask ourselves what we are fighting and loving for as the years slide by, and to which peaks and goals do we turn our faces as we overcome social anxiety in a big public place. Small moments matter the most sometimes, and the big events, like convocation, provide wonderful social refraction of the mirror-lens that illuminates the greater picture that is our life.
Narrative Analysis: To Ask A Question is to Draw Forth the Lifeblood of Our Life’s Truths
With that question about growing up, the rubber was hitting the road for me as an inchoate social scientist; clearly, the meaning of attending convocation was an example narrative analysis writ large. As one methodology textbook puts it, “while there is little consensus on what narrative analysis entails, at the very least it entails a sensitivity to: the connections in people’s accounts of past, present, and future events and states of affairs; people’s sense of their place within those events and situations; the stories they generate about them; and the significance of context for the unfolding of events and people’s sense of their role within them” (Bryman et al, 271). Significant context, indeed.
I’d venture that the whole of my AU journey so far would connote a differing hue had I not crowned my achievement with attendance, bum in seat style, at convocation. This was especially true for me because 15 years earlier I’d picked up an extra shift at work rather than attend my high school graduation. In short, convocation is a golden opportunity to put into practice participant observation such that we truly feel something about our studies that may have hitherto eluded us. Me, I realized how proud I was of my academic progress as a framework in which my life had evolved for the better.
Home is Where Your Academic Heart Is; At AU We’re All Albertans At Some Level
Convocation went off without a hitch; we each received our diploma with blushes and smiles and the huge prime rib buffet afterward was epic. They say free food tastes best but, really, a repast celebrating hard fought success knows no equal. We might as well have all been victorious members of Alexander the Great’s army. I’d been cautioning over-simplifying simpletons from back East and from the Wet Coast to love Alberta for years. Not only because respecting the Other beats wallowing in bird seed granola and stewed sanctimony but because Alberta really IS tasty, because Alberta really does make great gravy, and because Alberta really does bring the beef while limiting the cloying, all too Canadian, excesses of passive aggression. Because Alberta makes eye-contact, we all ougthta love the province; overcoming social anxiety is thus a part of encountering, seance-like, our flatlander within. And attending convocation puts our social science skills to the test.
For distance education students, apprehension is often a big draw for enrolling at AU in the first place. Yet, I’d argue, attending convocation circles the wagons of our solitary academia. And, hey, our University graduation might be our last kick at the old hat and gown bucket; so if you can possibly swing it head out to Athabasca and check out the festivities. This year might be a write off thanks to the Kung Flu kick of COVID-19 but there’s always 2021 and years thereafter. And even if your graduation number’s not up the festivities are well worth the travel; I’d attend every year if work and the bajillion mile drive didn’t get in the way. But really, that’s an excuse, and AU success is about just saying ‘no’ to excuses.
Clarity of Life’s Vision at Convocation
The what-felt-like-millions of eyes in the audience clarified my vision of past and future selves. Like at the tiny Cricket Road forest access near Castlegar, where we stopped for a pee hike on the way home to the sunny Okanagan, the whole mountainous landscape between BC and Alberta seemed to pixelate into one big Manet painting of some day at the beach. In such magical moments where our past crawls away to burned out synapses and our future morphs into a blurry mezzotint realm of equally dubious stereoscopic uncertainty, the world becomes what it is for us and we become who we truly are.
And up there on stage, in our skin clothes and under those frattish robes, we realize that our life is the only one we live by and that there be precious few moments per decade that will stand out in such shining glory. Like the Hindu god Ganesh trumpeting a final farewell as time circles around the cosmos in an endless sidereal cycle, only to dip below the horizon as our personal present incarnation flickers into a penumbra twilight, convocation is where we say goodbye to another facet of the enigma that is our identity so that we may embrace a new and shinier iteration of self.
Convocation: Where Our Past Self Meets Our Future Self
Rare though those these meetings of our history and our future are, the memories thereof imprint upon the grand edifice of a life well lived. In the instant that I considered who I wanted to be in the future, and it’s ontological implications for my overall apparatus of personal identity, I realized just how blessed I was to be raised to believe that I can, at a cosmic level, become anything I want to be when I grow up. That is, if I am willing to work hard enough and/or like a dog, and am willing to overcome setbacks along the way. Most of all, though, to have passion for life and learning is what stands any of us in good stead. And that’s perhaps the greatest thing I learned from the speech of my elders and the speakers at convocation. Their words of encouragement clarified themselves in my response to the graduate in the seat next to me. My off-the- cuff answer hasn’t changed with deeper thought: “I dunno but I wanna have fun along the way” I said. From there, in that moment, I maybe then made my staple joke about planning to run an unlicensed secular monastery specializing in Alcohol Based Counselling (ABC for short). But the details are less important; often to ask a question is to answer it, and not knowing is the key to the magnificence of inquiry itself.
To achieve a pleasant life outcome may well be to acknowledge how we want to feel in the future. Studies show that graduates of an Arts program, any arts program, be it art history or psychology, lead a happier life regardless of income. A recent Gallup poll question asked respondents to assess the statement “at work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day”. As it turned out, “humanities graduates were more likely than engineering graduates to answer in the affirmative.” So much for that useless piece of paper that the hoi polloi sometimes affixes to our Arts education! (Bradburn, 2018 and Jaschick, 2018). Indeed, much of the paradox of higher learning lies in the way it challenges our core conception that we must learn about the things that we will directly ‘do something’ with.
Like internet videos of people arguing over trifles in the ‘real world’ the problem may lie with the fact that we believe that we must always do something ‘practical’ with what we learn and that, somehow, we are never outside of our very real human context. Rare is the moment where we question these core conceptions about meaning and place. The ecologist Daniel B. Botkin notes that life lives in folds of meaning and metaphor; “at the surface were the activities of society…Underneath these was a layer of belief, myth, and assumption, of symbol and metaphor: the clock, the tree and the stars” (Botkin, vii). In the science of nature, as in the arts of our hearts, we each become the best possible models of our future selves in the present when we remember that it is we who write the interpretive script of our own lives. And that fact was never so clear to me as it was as I sat at my own convocation and considered what I was going to be when I grew up. Luckily, ontology breeds a certain promiscuity and there are no wrong answers to such a question.
An Exit Rejoinder
Henry Miller summarized the value of knowing why and how we envision our future selves to be; life’s about running toward the light rather than away from it, of dreaming as a way of being rather than a desperate escape or hopeful obsequiousness to context. In the shadow of the end of WWII, he wrote:
“The struggle against is as valiant as the struggle for; the difference lies in the fact that the one who struggles against has his back to the light. He is fighting his own shadow. It is only when this shadow play exhausts him, when finally he falls prostate, that the light which sweeps over him can reveal to him the splendors which he had mistaken for phantoms. This is the surrender of pride and egotism which is demanded of all, great or small.” (Miller, 138). Just knowing what we don’t know about our future makes it all the more delicious; likewise, having a goal that is thematic as much as specific is delightful in itself. There’s less to fear than we think in life because in the end, wherever we go and whoever we grow into, there we are.