‘A Manner of Being’

Three Taps

Thomas M. Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, initiates the 2011 Season with the Three Taps of the Gavel address at the Amphitheater during Sunday morning and worship service. Photo by Megan Tan.

The following is a transcript of Chautauqua President Thomas M. Becker’s Three Taps of the Gavel address to the Amphitheater on June 26, 2011.

Welcome to this morning’s service of worship and to this ceremonial gaveling that we conduct for the purposes of opening the season and dedicating ourselves to the amazing array of gifts contained within the next nine weeks of the Chautauqua experience.

My wife Jane was telling me recently about a study she read that examines how the brain absorbs information contained in a new experience. Apparently, when we encounter a complex experience for the first time, the brain is intensely engaged in collecting massive amounts of information. The researchers point out that this phenomenon of data collection also explains the sense of time slowing down. Whereas the more we repeat the experience with a place or an event, the data collection slows dramatically and we rely on what we already know. This condition of repeating the familiar also frees the brain to absorb new information or to invite greater scrutiny of elements of the experience. Absent this deeper dive into information, time will fly.

Perhaps some of you can sympathize with my thoughts upon hearing Jane’s recitation. The first was that this eerily explained how she manages to explore my faults with new and creative ways to plumb their depths. The second was a point of self recognition that I clearly manifest — what the comedian Steven Wright once called the combination of amnesia and déjà vu — that sense that I have forgotten this before.

I also thought about this sacred place, Chautauqua, and about the process of our annually assembling here for the purpose of exploring the best of human values and the enrichment of life; the way in which the place is both valued for and preserved as familiar. This sense of familiarity, strikingly available even to those here for the first time, allows us — indeed, frees us — to put our energies into a deeper, more complex understanding of the experiences of the season, whether they be relational, programmatic or spiritual. And the pace of our lives inside Chautauqua is different precisely because of this gift of familiarity and the investment in genuine engagement.

In his reflections on defining standards of political excellence, Edmund Burke includes, “… to have leisure to read, to reflect, to converse.” Later he adds, “… be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow citizens in their highest concerns, and that you act as a reconciler between God and man …” Are these not also standards for exhibiting the best in human values? Are these not also, in part, standards for good parenting?

James Baldwin once remarked, “Children rarely pay attention to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them.”

Most of us in this Amphitheater have long since left the embrace of formal education. For many, that included higher education created as a means of teaching us to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly. These capacities are critical to not only career and success in our chosen fields but also to a life of contribution to the broader good — to affective citizenship.

This Institution was founded by visionaries committed to affective citizenship, knowing full well that these capacities of thinking, reasoning, solving and communicating need constant exercise and regular renewal and refreshment. This Institution stands in service to the effort to be all we can be; to understand our times; to appreciate the imperfections of what it is to be human; to cope with the inevitable inadequacy of our efforts, even our best efforts; and to be resolved in the conviction that the effort itself, collective and personal, demonstrates the finest characteristic of the post-Eden human condition.

Recently, Time magazine offered a scientific cover article titled, “The Optimism Bias,” written by Tali Sharot. Sharot declares that research reveals we are more optimistic than realistic. We underestimate our chances of being divorced or getting cancer and overestimate our children’s gifts (think of Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average); we even overestimate our own life spans. Sharot says we have an optimism bias. While collectively we are increasingly pessimistic, privately optimism is resilient.  It makes sense, doesn’t it? We are, after all, mortal. What point is there to saving or investing in the future if we do not have an optimistic sense that things can be better?

It turns out that there is an important interplay in the evolution of our species between our brain’s capacity to consider alternative realities and the improved health and ease of stress offered by entertaining hope. “Our brains,” says Sharot, “… aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.” Later the author states that research indicates, “… the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events … it is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process.”

We come to these grounds with different ideas about the ways to fix the economy, to best worship God, to respond to the challenges of a fragile ecological environment. Some of us are steeped in the commitment of the preservation and performance of great art, others to the freedom of improvisation and the expression of the new. We differ on our sense of balance between individual and common good. We assess the risks to our freedom with different emphases and informed by very different philosophies. We come together to create this remarkable community in which it is the exchange of ideas, the exploration of the reasoned differences, the witness of art in the making, the engagement of ethics applied to our lives from moral precepts of different faith systems. We bring our children and our grandchildren to the assembly in the hope that this environment will spark within them an attraction to creative, rigorous, lifelong learning; that curiosity becomes a part of their character.

This is what Chautauqua is; with its familiar architecture and streetscape, its ritual and overt respect for its history; this is what we are about — this modeling of conduct, this engagement in creative citizenship, in the development of moral imagination.

Nabokov declared the soul a manner of being, not a constant entity. This annual assembly of community is in service to a manner of being: open, acquisitive, analytic, rational, faithful, hopeful, prudent, modest and respectful. “In service to” means that these gifts can be gained in the experience. But it takes effort.

There are multiple barriers to our capacity to make the most of this environment. We have infirmities.

We come with our biases, ideologies, certitudes and fears. Our curiosity is dulled by the ubiquitous vulgarities of much of the culture. Our political narrative bends to easy answers, smug formulae and simplistic solutions. And we mistake sound bites for deep thought and reality shows for creative entertainment.

Chautauqua offers an antidote to these infirmities. Here our barriers can be lowered, risks taken. And the rewards for doing so are vast, particularly if our modeling of this manner of being transcends the boundaries of Chautauqua the place, and the nine weeks of the season into the conduct of our lives throughout the year.

This institution, founded in optimism and steeped in hope, begins again for the 138th time, an assembly dedicated to the best of human values and the enrichment of life.

We hope that each and every one of you will find within these grounds an instructor of your highest concerns and a reconciler between yourselves and God.

I tap the gavel three times. Chautauqua 2011 has begun.