Trinity College Class of 1968 50th Reunion
Memorial Service, June 8, 2018
Michael H. Floyd ‘68
(For a list of deceased classmates, click here.)
Occasions like this are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we have a unique opportunity to honor the memory of our deceased classmates. And on the other hand, we are also confronted with a powerful reminder of our own mortality. A reunion such as this is a time to reawaken fond memories of the past, but also a time to reflect on the challenges of living here and now, given our stage of life. It’s what the medievals would have called a memento mori—as we English majors learned in Paul Smith’s class studying a novel by the same name.
And along this line I would dare say that our deceased classmates have something to tell us. In Christian tradition there is a mystical relationship between the living and the dead, called the communion of saints, with which the scripture readings we have just heard are traditionally associated. According to this idea, the dead have an ongoing relationship with the living, and we can be helped and encouraged in living our lives if we become aware of their interest in our welfare. They are rooting for us, as it were. (In secular terms, the idea of objective immortality has somewhat similar implications.) In keeping with this tradition, I’d like to wonder out loud with you what our departed friends might want us to know, and what they might wish for us.
One possibility occurred to me as I looked at various old photos that have been circulating in connection with the reunion, some of which include classmates no longer with us. I was reminded of an early scene from the movie, Dead Poets Society. An English teacher at a New England boys’ prep school, played by Robin Williams, takes a group of new students into a hall where photos, trophies, and other memorabilia of past classes are displayed. He confronts the boys with the fact that the students in these old photos, who were once also new to the school, are now dead and gone. He tells them that in due time they will also be portrayed in these faded photos of former students and will also be, like them, dead and gone. The teacher helps his students find the moral to this encounter in the famous poem that begins, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” a moral that he sums up in the phrase carpe diem, “seize the day!”
This aphorism is often stated more prosaically as “live each day as if it were your last.” This must be good advice. It has been affirmed by every wise guy from Cicero to Dear Abby. This is certainly one way of understanding what an occasion such as this teaches us. I must confess, however, that I have personally found it to be impractical. I get the point intellectually, but I have a hard time grasping it emotionally.
I still remember my reaction, while I was a student at Trinity, to seeing the geezers who had come back for reunions as they paraded down the Long Walk. Intellectually I knew very well that I would someday be in their shoes. Emotionally, however, I found it hard if not impossible to grasp that fact. In terms of my feelings, I could only project my twenty-year-old self indefinitely into the future. I knew that of course I would eventually be as old as they, but even in my wildest imagination I couldn’t begin to feel what that would be like.
Now that I am one of those geezers parading down the Long Walk, I still strangely find myself in much the same position. Although life’s horizon is much closer, and intellectually I know very well that sometime soon I’ll reach the edge, emotionally I still find it hard if not impossible to grasp that fact. In terms of my feelings, I can only project my present seventy-one-year-old self indefinitely into the future. Sometimes I ask myself, “Is it just me?” But apparently not, because Bill Moyers expressed similar sentiments in an interview on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. When asked how he felt about the approach of death, he said: “I just can’t imagine not being.”
Neither can I, and that makes it impractical for me to try to “live each day as if it were my last.” I would if I could. For my part, though, I wonder whether it is also possible to understand the upshot of today’s commemoration in other terms.
When I graduated from Trinity I had little idea of where I was going. The surprise award of an unsolicited scholarship and my desire to avoid the Viet Nam war put me on a path that led to seminary and eventually to my becoming a teacher of the Old Testament—with apologies to Ted Mauch. One of the chores that this vocation inevitably entails is contending with the negative stereotypes of the Old Testament that are rampant in Christian as well as secular circles.
Take sacrifice, for example. Many folks indignantly condemn the ritual slaughter of animals as a barbarically cruel practice, done by primitive peoples who didn’t know any better. Many of these same folks, however, never give a second thought to our factory farms and slaughter houses, which wreak cruelty on a massive scale that our ancient forebears could have never even imagined. It is also commonly assumed that the purpose of sacrifice was to placate an angry God, but careful reading of the biblical text shows that this is not the case.
According to Leviticus, the purpose of sacrifice is to dramatize for worshipers the fact that it costs life to sustain life, and to engender in them a respect for life, even in the taking of it. Sacrifice represents the fact that other living things—plants as well as animals—give their lives so that we may live. More generally, the ritual spectacle evokes a vivid awareness of the way in which we are all indebted to countless others, whom we may never explicitly know, in every aspect of our lives, to an extent that we can never repay. We are all interconnected with one another in this profoundly interdependent way, simply by being co-inhabitants of this planet. Once aware of how we are indebted to one another, we are called to respond with gratitude, showing to others and to all the world around us the same generosity that has been so extravagantly shown to us.
The main point of the biblical idea of sacrifice still resonates, even though the actual practice was long ago abandoned. I suggest that we might borrow from it to imagine how we are related to our departed classmates and what they mean to us. According to this idea, we are connected to them and to one another in a dynamic world wide web, created by the phenomenon of life being given in order to sustain life. This web, which connects all living and once living things, persists from the past to the present, and into the future. And within it there exist countless subgroups—even subgroups as limited and particular as the class of ’68.
When we view our college days in light of this interconnectedness, we become aware of the way in which all of us contributed to the process that has made us who we are. Each of us made an indelible impression on the collective Trinity experience that shaped us at a particularly impressionable time in our lives. In this sense we are incalculably indebted to one another, even to those members of our class that we didn’t particularly know very well.
When I consider our deceased classmates in this way, I feel an immense gratitude toward them, and I feel called by them to live whatever time remains to me with as much generosity as I can muster. If we can, let us live each day as if it were our last. But in any case, as we hear the names of our departed classmates solemnly read out, let us thankfully remember them as co-creators of what we have become, whose memory calls us to live generously in all aspects of our lives, for as long as we have left.
Michael H. Floyd