T. Kaori Kitao

William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Art History, Swarthmore College
4 June, 2001

Idle But Not Idly

  1. There is a saying in Japan that every Japanese knows,
    which I take very close to my heart.

    It says:

    Sensei to iwareru hodo no baka wa nashi.

    In translation, it goes:
    No greater fool than to be called professor.

    I think it sounds better and truer in Italian:

    Si chiama professor, si prova buffone.

    Al Bloom, our dear president, is not a professor — for now.
    I am.

    Al is someone who rarely makes mistakes.
    But when he errs, he errs big.

    I'm not thinking of what you are thinking,
    but I might note that an act of courage is often mistaken for a blunder
    until its true sense becomes clear only years later.

    No, the blunder I am thinking of is his inviting me to be this year's Baccalaureate speaker.
    Mine is to have accepted the invitation.

    An august occasion like this demands wisdom and character,
    neither of which are my forte;
    the president should have known this by now,
    but he didn't know my favorite saying.

    I might stir you up to believe in my qualifications
    only if I had a stentorian voice of a great preacher.
    But I don't.

    I might excite you to feel uplifted and inspired
    only if I had something uplifting and inspiring to say.
    But I don't.

    I thought of some possibilities.
    I thought I could tell you that graduation marks the beginning of an end,
    or is it the end of a beginning, and
    that your future is bright with full of adventures.
    But this has been said over and over.

    I thought I could tell you, conversely, that tomorrow is only another day,
    that life goes on, rain or shine, wax and wane,
    that learning is a lifelong endeavor that never ceases to cease.
    But I've heard that said, too, over and over.

    I thought I could tell you, more realistically,
    that the world you are walking into is a wilderness and
    that you'd better brace yourself with an armor
    for a dog-eat-dog survival.
    Perhaps this has not been said quite this way
    but it has a distinctly infelicitous flavor I don't savor.

    I could try to be noble and say that with your enviable education
    you should cast your self-interest aside
    and seek a challenge in a higher cause for the better world.
    That is a sound message, no doubt.
    But this, too, you've heard more than once.

    Or, I could perhaps tell you what I know best,
    that is, something or rather about the importance of art
    in life no less than in Liberal Arts Education.
    But I've already said this over and over —
    for these 50 years.

    So, I decided to resort to something closer to my disposition and perhaps to my soul.

    Here is another saying which is also very dear to my heart,
    though it is of dubious authenticity.
    It says: Idle but not Idly.

    This sounds awful.
    Idleness has a bad reputation.

    To idle, a dictionary says, is "to pass time without working or in avoiding work;
    to move lazily and without purpose;
    to run at a slow speed or out of gear (of a motor or a machine)."

    Maybe you deserve idleness after four years at Swarthmore.

  2. Swarthmore is a formidable place. Formidable,yes, it is, but also formidable.
    You know that too well after these four long arduous years,
    or five for a small fitful minority, or even six.

    The unending cycles of papers and exams, year in and year out,
    sometimes even two at the price of one.

    Those bound syllabi listing volumes of reading
    that you never expect to complete but have to pretend that you did.

    Those sleepless nights induced not by insomnia but by deadlines to meet.

    The pressure of participating in class discussions
    in which you have to compete with your pretentiously pedantic peers.

    Too much! Too much!
    All those four years of unrelenting intense hard work!

    Ah, yes, but it's all over for you.

    I know all too well what you had to go through, and I sympathize with you.
    I know what long arduous years feel like.
    I worked just as hard doling out my share of your burden.

    But I am envious.

    I came to Swarthmore in 1966, and only after thirty-five long years,
    am I finally allowed to graduate,
    and I don't even get a sheepskin.

    But think how much you've learned in these four years.
    Think also how your perception of time changed.
    How the struggle extended time while you were in its midst!
    How fast, when you reflect upon it, four years have come and gone!
    How fast my thirty-five years have come and gone!

    You earned knowledge; and you also gained maturity — some of you.
    But you earned other gifts — hopefully:
    patience, persistence, perspective,
    confidence, compassion, and command of the English language,
    the fine art of learning how to learn, and
    resistance to disappointments and failures,
    not to speak of friendship and romance
    and a whole lot more.

    You also experienced something Swarthmore is uniquely fit to offer.

    Some of you undoubtedly always cherished it.
    But others among you, between studies and parties, may have let it slip out of memory.

    I want to make a special note of it
    because it is something I would like you to remember — always.

    That is silence.
    . . . .
    . . . .
    . . . .

    In silence we pay attention and become keenly aware of the world without noise,
    a hushed world, a quiet world.
    Becoming aware of it, you have also silenced your mind.

    You emptied your mind of interfering thoughts,
    of disturbances, of your own voice talking.

    So, there is, on the one hand, the silent world.
    Then, there is, on the other, the silent mind.

    In silence you hear better.
    In silence you see more.
    In silence you feel what it is to feel through the pores of your skin.

    In silence we awake and experience the world anew.
    In silence we see more clearly what we have known before only by recognition.
    In silence we see beauty in Nature, grand and miniscule,
    in dappled things and plain faces,
    in great mountains and creeping caterpillars.

    Some of you loved to walk in the Crum
    and seek solace in solitude, especially in time of sorrow.

    But many of you had little time in your busy schedule
    to look around in silence, and
    actively and fully appreciate the College's natural environment
    so lovingly planted and tended by our Scott Arboretum,
    if at times over-enthusiastically.
    You will remember this when you acquire a house and begin to garden.

    In silence we also experience the world within.

    Quakers are known for their silence in their Meeting,
    the Japanese for their art of tea ceremony.

    But we pray in silence whatever our religious persuasion.
    Even when we gather to pray, we commune with the divine silently, alone.

    Self-reflection does not occur in social gathering.
    It can happen only when we are alone and silent.

    Solitude supports silence.

    Scholars and civil servants retreated into the mountains in Chinese paintings,
    away from the toil, troubles, and tribulations of the secular world
    in search of solitude and serenity.

    For Kamo no Chômei in his mountain retreat,
    where he built for himself a ten-foot-square hut,
    solitude was a given, and silence was spontaneous.
    Silence is golden, some say.
    I say it's more; silence is sacred.

    The world of silence makes us silence our mind.
    In the world of urban cacophony,
    we can close our mind and shut out the clamor and meditate.

    If you want to pray, you can pray anywhere.

    But if we learn to silence our mind,
    we can also see the built environment anew with fresh eyes,
    and find beauty and magic
    in battered walls and worn shop signs,
    in faucets, doorknobs, and manhole covers,
    in the symphony of shapes and colors,
    in the dappled world of everyday things
    in the kitchen, on the street, at the workplace.

    The only sure way to see the world in its full splendor
    is to look and scrutinize it — alone, in silence, and we can do that anywhere.

    That's why the ideal of my retreat is not mountains but Manhattan.

    If an empty mind is passively inactive it is idle.
    If an empty mind is achieved by a force of concentration,
    it is what in Zen Buddhism is known as Mu, or the State of Nothingness.

    It is then a pure mind.
    It requires discipline.

    If an empty mind is harnessed with willing perception,
    it may be idling but not idle.

  3. Silent mind need not be a vacant mind.
    A silent mind can also be fertile and pregnant. . . that is to say, creative.

    In silence we create.

    Creativity is not a prerogative of the artist, as so many mistakenly think.

    There is a curious distortion in popular as well as academic thinking that
    creative writing is set against critical writing,
    evocative prose against scientific analysis,
    education of the senses against discipline of the intellect,
    performance against theory.

    Creative thinking occurs across the disciplines, in all activities.
    Writers, musicians, administrators, scientists, inventors, scholars, athletes,
    and factory workers.
    They are all are creative at their best.
    Whatever the discipline or profession, we create;
    and we are most creative in solitude,
    not while chatting.

    Being independent is being on one's own.
    Committees may execute but they don't create.

    A silent mind is, therefore, an independent mind.

    There is learning in studying together.
    We learn in debates, discussions, and workshops.
    We can have conferences and brainstorming sessions.
    Time to be together; time to be alone.
    Time to discourse, time to be silent — zu schweigen, as Germans say.

    True original thinking can happen only in the independent, solitary mind.

    Brainstorms may flare in debates.
    But a mind, alone on its own, breeds them.

    So, there is, on the one hand, the idle mind that is at rest — out of work.
    Then, there is, on the other, the idle mind that may idle but not idly.

    It may be deep in meditation, purged of worldly thoughts;
    or it may be eagerly experiencing the world with fresh perceptions.

    But there is the idling mind of the third kind, and it is the best.
    It is the mind that whiles away in creative mental doodling.

    You know how this goes.
    You are struggling with a paper, unsure where it is going.
    But if you let your mind linger and be playful,
    out of chaos, Eureka,
    a great idea arises, like Venus out of the sea.

    When our mind is engaged in an effort to arrive at a goal,
    it is busy to get there as efficiently as possible.
    Then, it has no room for digression.

    It is in the process of realizing an idea already shaped,
    rather than breeding a new idea.

    The mind is at its most fertile, however, when it is groping,
    when it must therefore linger and dawdle,

    when it can afford to roam and meander,
    when it halts and skips and crisscrosses playfully; and then,
    all of a sudden, it soars in abandon.

    The mind which knows to halt and idle
    in the midst of intense work on its way to reach a destination
    is a mind which stirs itself for a flight of imagination.

    This is what the Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino
    called furor poeticus or poetic frenzy.

    Artists and poets know it from practice.
    Scholars, scientists, and administrators
    practice it, often unaware that they are artists —
    in those selected moments.

    Furor poeticuscannot happen without silence of the mind.
    It is the mind idling creatively.

  4. In our contemporary culture silence is an endangered species.

    There is noise, of course, all around us — too much of it.
    But there is also hyperactivity.

    We live and work close together in cities.
    So, we have demographic density, spatial scarcity,
    and longer and more intense social interactions.
    Public places are now invaded by invasive privacy
    in the form of rampant cell phones misused rampantly.

    Swarthmore College has always been a sanctuary of silence.

    But it, too, is changing.
    In the last 35 years we added ten major buildings, and more are in sight.

    By simple equation,
    we now have smaller open spaces and fewer sequestered places.
    This is progress, we say.
    But what will this place be like decades from now!

    By the same token, a day has only 24 hours, and

    more and more of students' waking life is taxed by
    increased and still increasing social intercourse:
    more planned events,
    more extracurricular activities,
    more social gathering places all over the campus, and
    lots and lots of comfortable chairs
    to lounge in and carry on pleasant chitchat.

    Comfortable chairs are symbolic.
    They are soporiferous; they induce sleep.

    Chairs conventionally thought to be comfortable are, in fact,
    ergonomically harmful and
    academically counter-productive.
    When we are truly intensely at work
    we don't think about the bottom line of our seat.

    All this is progress, we are told.

    Prospective students demand them, and
    we are forced to compete for applicants with other liberal arts colleges
    which are eagerly turning themselves into economy class country clubs,
    a trend instigated in no small measure by the dubious ranking game,
    invented by weekly journalists and
    cheered by some corporate benefactors.

    Times change, and we must move on, of course.

    It's a brave new world; and
    I regret but don't bewail the Quakerly tradition of simplicity and quietude
    dumped to the wayside,
    as I perhaps should, proper to my age.
    But I don't, nor am I discouraged by these changes.

    Social life does not necessarily diminish academic prowess.

    Oh, yes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,
    and Jill a weary girl.

    But play can be social as well as solitary.

    One plays with others to learn social skills,
    and one plays quietly and playfully by oneself
    to train independent creativity.

    Swarthmore students today are as bright as ever, and
    the best know the precious value of silence and playful thinking.

    Swarthmore College, I don't doubt for a minute,
    will eventually return to uphold its Quakerly heritage of simplicity and sobriety
    and market it as its unique unrivalled strength.

    And we shall all survive.

    If the world refuses to be silent, we silence our mind and let it idle idly.

    People in today's world don't like to wait.

    Many see it as idling because waiting is unproductive.
    It has been said that we spend seven years of our life on the average, waiting.
    Waiting tries patience.
    But waiting is waiting
    only when we are anxious to get to that for which we are waiting.

    Waiting, on the other hand, is an opportunity for the silent mind,
    to meditate, to observe, and even to stir up some poetic frenzy.

    In those cultures considered underdeveloped by such industrialized nations,
    like Japan and the West,
    people spend more time standing or sitting alone, in silence.
    Time is slow, and productivity suffers.

    But slow life has its salubrious side.
    Those who had a share in such a life can attest to that.

  5. Communication expands knowledge.
    It is a transport vehicle for distributing information,
    and information is a resource, the goods for transport.

    Information is a fodder for knowledge, not knowledge itself.

    Neither information nor communication serves knowledge without a creative mind
    though high technology may lure us to believe otherwise.

    We accumulate knowledge communally by learning interactively.
    We can do that alone; but we do that better working together with others.

    But it is our independent mind silently at work alone,
    groping, wondering, questioning, struggling,
    rather chaotically but always playfully.

    It is such a mind that learns how to think creatively.

    And creative thinking is the basis of true understanding.

    As Heraclitus astutely observed 25 centuries ago,
    A Lot of Learning does not teach Understanding.

    In solitude alone,
    alone in solitude,
    our mind will be silent, perceptive, and creative, and
    achieve understanding that surpasses knowledge.

    So, here is my exhortation to the Class of 2001.

    Guard jealously
    Your private time
    And private space.

    Cherish and nurture
    Silence in your mind.

    Remember always:
    Idle but not idly.

    Then, the envoy.

    Let us go then, you and I,
    When the morning fades away against the sky.
    On our Space Odyssey we shall soar
    In this most auspicious year, 2000 and one.

SHALOM ALECHEM
06.03.01