Alma mater – reflections on a mother and child reunion

It was the best of times, it was, some would have us believe, the worst of times. It was in fact neither. It was, nevertheless, like now, great to be alive. To be young was, well, not quite heaven but still a very good place to be.

We met together last weekend, twenty or so of us, fifty years later. We remembered those times and the fifty-two of us who walked a road together over a period of five years, journeying from boyhood to manhood. On a day in June, 1962, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways through the gates of St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, Ireland.

Over those five years there were fifty-two stories unfolding, each one was different from the other in many respects but not as different as they were going to become in the years that followed our departure through those gates. We all arose to the clanging of a bell at 7.10 each morning. We all raced to the college chapel for prayers and Mass – and I won’t mention the fate of any boy who had not succeeded in getting through the chapel door by the dot of 7.30, when the last ring of that bell had sounded in the courtyard of the school. At the end of the day the same bell was carried around the bedroom corridors of the school and with the last stroke we were all in bed in our dormitories or behind the closed doors of our shared bedrooms. Day after day, week after week, for fifteen terms over those five years, these and similar routines filled our lives and in a way helped make us what are. Last weekend’s gathering recorded no regrets about any of it that I heard.

We are aware now – although it did not really enter our minds then – that we were in fact the last generation to experience an educational culture that is now well and truly dead. Although the generations which followed us tend to look back and say, “and good riddance”, we, at worst, had no more than mixed feelings about it all. Later generations paint the 1950s in lurid colours and with very rough brush-strokes. We did not look at it through rose-tints, nor did we fail to see its touches of barbarity, but it was neither as lurid nor as rough as they portray. What was then unthinkable but what is now a reality was reported in statistical terms in a magazine just last week:

Primary schools in England exclude – that’s the euphemism for expel – an average of 89 pupils a day for attacking teachers or classmates. My recollection from five years in St. Eunan’s is that 4 students were expelled – admittedly for something much less serious that inflicting violence on teachers or fellow pupils. Discipline was firm and indiscipline had its serious consequences. Slipping out of bounds at night and returning from a dance in the early hours was not something that was tolerated.

We were not conscious of it, but the self-discipline induced in us by the imposed discipline of those years probably played an important part in the fifty-two very different stories which began to unfold with our passage through those gates – each young man going his separate way to build his own life on the common foundation laid by our families, our teachers and our companionship with each other.

We came together last weekend to catch up on those stories but they were perhaps too numerous and too varied to do justice to that. We probably spent more time reflecting on the world in which we lived together for those five years than we did on the separate worlds we had helped build for ourselves and others in the intervening years.

Two of our old teachers accompanied us and that helped keep our focus on the years which moulded our resilience for the world. In 1957, the year we nervously and apprehensively entered that sheltered and somewhat forbidding world, Ireland recorded its highest level of emigration since it became an independent state. Although no one said it at the time, it had what might now be considered the hallmarks of a failing state. By 1962, when we entered the wider world, the forty-year-old state had already turned a critical corner and was beginning to claim a better place among the nations of the earth. We considered it our good fortune to be part of the generation which helped make good that claim.

Ireland in 2012 is a very different place from what it was in 1957 or 1962. In many ways, but not in every way, it is a better place. But there has been loss as well as gain. Humankind is very flawed when it comes to judging what happiness is and how it is attained. Success or failure in that pursuit is better judged in retrospect. The little and great challenges which confront the human spirit, friendship, joy in little things are at the root of human happiness. We had all of those and no amount of material progress since then has proven that it can bring any greater enrichment to mankind than these.

A comment I read recently on Viktor Frankel’s magnificent book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reminds us that

Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond.

We learned something about all of these in those five years. Frankel himself wrote in that book,

Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and in America: “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

I would not want to make even the shadow of a suggestion that the horrors of Viktor Frankel’s experiences were anything like our benign confinement behind the gates of St. Eunan’s, but his epiphany was one which might be hopefully experienced by all of humanity – as it was by us. He wrote,

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

We look around us at our world today, with all its progress, and wonder, as he did before his death some years ago, whether we are more adept at realizing this truth than we were fifty years ago. I think not.

He spoke of an existential vacuum which has afflicted humanity in the twentieth century. In part he attributed this to a loss suffered in our more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed our behavior are now rapidly diminishing. He wrote:

No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). A statistical survey recently revealed that among my European students, 25 percent showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students it was not 25 but 6o percent. The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom.

In the ‘Fifties and early ‘Sixties we lived in a world which had many more “taboos” that we have today. But we also lived in a world where those evils to which taboos attached were less common than they are today. We knew little of many of the things which Frankel partly ascribes to this existential vacuum: suicide, depression, aggression and addiction. He speaks of various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes, he maintains, the frustrated search for meaningis vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, its place is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why, he says, existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. He observes that in such cases the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.

Let me not be a Jeremiah. I am not. The times we live in are the best of times, because we live. But the times we lived in then gave us a heritage – and it is only right to ask, firstly, are we grateful for what was good in it and how much of it we may have squandered.

After our reunion we departed to our respective worlds. What was most moving about our day together, perhaps our last – nor did we forget the nine companions who had gone to their eternal reward, – was the sense of gratitude we shared for what we had received all those years ago.

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