From the President: Column by Thomas Becker


Column by Thomas M. Becker

During the last several months, purely by happenstance, I have had the pleasure of catching up with old friends and acquaintances who, for a variety of reasons, have been absent from my life for a long time. Inevitably, there is a request for a CliffsNotes version of one’s life: Who are you now, what do you do, etc. It may not surprise you to know the first thing out of my mouth is the declaration that we are now grandparents, a statement usually blurted out and accompanied by a goofy, animated grin.

Our eldest daughter, Culleen, her husband, Dan, and children, Sophia, age 3, and Olivia, age 4 months, stayed with us last week. Jane and I stay in touch with the kids through Skype and by texting (via Mom), but their presence is that much more satisfying. Sophia is a whirlwind of activity and verbal expression. Jane and I assumed so many Sophia-made characters in just a few days I thought she was writing a Russian novel. Olivia, less expressive, managed to con me into a almost non-stop parade of walking and bouncing, singing (she has yet to learn about musical appreciation) and gurgling.

The evening before they were headed home, I had two experiences that I hope my limited faculties retain to the grave. The first occurred while comforting Olivia as she was finishing an extended wail of unhappiness over something we never fully discovered. As she calmed, her face nestled into my neck below the ear and we began to coo. While I may have begun the cooing, she continued on her own, modulating the tones and length of the expression with an accumulating sense of calm. She sounded like a dove.

Later, after Sophia and I had finished one of her creative scenarios wherein I was required to play three different roles, a task I continually confused, Sophia declared out of the blue, “Grandpa, you make me happy.”

I have no idea how it gets any better than this.

I tell you the story because all grandparents prattle on about their genius grandchildren, but also because the opportunity to be present in one another’s lives is increasingly challenging in our modern, global existence, and something is lost.

To be sure, the messages this coming week about digital identity are important for our understanding of the flow of technology through our lives. Indeed, there is much to be grateful for as we can access information and stay in contact with people in a time frame and in a volume unimaginable just a few years ago. Those are important, complicated and nuanced issues that go to the very heart of how we understand our place in the world and the accompanying responsibilities.

What Chautauqua offers you in the next few days is an environment built for intimacy of conversation, internal and external, and a chance to deeply explore an important issue affecting our current lives with a trajectory of substantial impact on our future. And while we may not always make one another happy in those exchanges — and few of us will be cooing into another’s neck — we can and will recognize we are in this together. We will acknowledge our differences of opinion deepen our understanding. We will be present to one another and see technology as tools to assist us in our very human task of building relationships and understanding.