Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

Fist, Stand, Kneel

Lower School Chapel Talk Part 2

When last I talked with you here, I left you standing alone in the middle of the night in a vast open space—on a mesa in southern Utah to be specific—I hope you remember staring up at the swatch of stars across the sky, shouting your name and waiting for an answer. I asked you what you heard back and then stopped my talk.

I imagine some of you might have said, I heard nothing; others of you might have said, I heard silence; and still others of you might have said, I heard the sounds of the night. The point is, you didn’t hear a recognizable human response, nor did you hear a divine or supernatural voice call back affirming who you are, or telling you everything’s going to be all right.

Let me also ask you to remember that the subject of my last talk was toughness, and I concluded by saying that I profoundly believe that a measure of a person’s toughness is how he responds to what he does or does not hear back from the stars. All of us would like to hear back, or at least think we would like to hear back, the voice of an affirming god who loves us and promises us that after we die we will live in a mysterious, new, and perfect way in a realm we can’t explain or know here in our present chronological, three-dimensional lives. That is our hope. For some of us it is our faith.

But we don’t hear that message back in a way our five senses or our rational mind understands. In fact what we now know about those stars is that we are so infinitesimally small, and they are so far away that by the time their burning light travels the distance to get to where we can see them in the sky, the stars themselves are already dead. You might think me strange, but these facts the night sky presents us scare me, and make me raise the question of just how tough I am. I can strut, I can taunt, I can work out ‘til my body’s a rock, but what do I do with that endless night sky and who I am?

Today I want to ask this question. Given this condition, this human condition, what do we do? Or Tolstoy phrased a similar question, How then must man live?

My first answer is to pose three spiritual alternatives represented by three physical responses. I don’t mean to say that these are the only three alternatives, but these are the three I’d like to talk about today. The physical responses are (1) raise a fist, (2)walk away, or (3) kneel.

After 25 years of teaching, I’m confident that if I were to poll most adolescent boys about the physical gesture of the three they find most attractive, the majority would answer “raise a fist.” It’s so dramatic. It’s defiant. It’s so dog-poundish-cheering with the fist up, prancing around with the chest out, taunting the other cheering squad by pointing at them.

If the fist is raised toward the night sky, I interpret the message as something like this: OK, say that I am nothing compared to this mystery. I am who I am, but I’m proud, and nothing will make me bow. I will raise my fist against everything.

There are many heroes to this way of thinking. The first perhaps is Cain, who after he murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy, answered God by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Then he was cursed to wander the earth. And yet many traditions have him wearing the mark of Cain with pride, that is, walking through the earth with his fist raised.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan loses the battle of heaven and is tossed into hell, where he wakes up in the great Furnace but with “obdurate pride” rallies his fellow devils to continue their revolt against God, concluding his great speech with the ringing lines “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell / Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” That’s the best fist against the sky speech ever written.

The second physical response to my way of thinking is the act of walking away. A part of me calls this the Scarlett O’Hara response, who when confronted with troubling news in Gone with the Wind, would answer, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

And how do we keep ourselves from thinking about it? I would argue by distraction. T. S. Eliot’s line “distracted from distraction by distraction” captures something of the obsessive avoidance of our culture, perhaps best seen today in your lives by our culture’s desire never to give you any silence to deal with, and certainly not to make you think silence is good, or the fact of the matter that silence is free. Silence is not television or computer or Times Square advertising. It’s not jazzy. Just fill yourself up with an octillion mindless things to do, our culture says, all of which feel good, and walk away from your human condition. Until you die, and you find yourself asking, “What did life mean? Was I just supposed to keep busy?”

And what if we kneel? What does this third response say? OK, it seems to say, Instead of raising my fist, give in to our condition, kneel over it, pray for understanding.

Let me circle back to the beginning of this homily and say that I believe you’re a tougher human being if you face up to the facts of our human condition and choose not to deceive yourself with a raised fist but train yourself, struggle with yourself, and push yourself to buy into the way things are. Acceptance is hard. I believe the best way to accept is first to kneel and then to become a singer or a poet of life—I mean being a singer or poet whatever job you end up holding—and spend your time celebrating the Creation and our lives in it. With the Psalmist you say, “Let all the earth keep silent before the Lord.” With Gerard Manley Hopkins you say, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” With W.H. Auden you say, “O Who Can Ever Gaze His Fill.”

Finally, you get up from your knees and make the greatest physical response you can. I’ve said raise the fist, walk away, and kneel. Let me finish with the end of Auden’s poem. “OWho Can Ever Gaze His Fill”:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,

Not to be born is the best for man:

The second-best is a formal order,

The dance’s pattern: Dance while you can.

Dance. dance. for the figure is easy.

The tune is catching and will not stop:

Dance till the stars come down with the rafters;

Dance. dance, dance till you drop.


Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

This homily was delivered to students in the Little Sanctuary, September 1999.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435