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Peyton R. Helm: College graduates prepared for lifelong research project
This commentary was adapted from the baccalaureate address he gave to the college's graduating class Saturday night.

Mon, 19 May 2014 14:37:00 EDT

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Published by The Morning Call
May 19, 2014

Let us be honest with each other. God isn't finished with any of us yet — not me, not you, not even your favorite faculty members.

And if you ever find yourself believing that you have achieved intellectual maturity, impeccable values and perfect judgment, you will be mistaken. In such circumstances I suggest that you immediately have children or seek out the company of teenagers who will set you straight. This has worked for me over the years, and I'm sure it will work for you.

I'm all for self-improvement, but achieving an ideal state is simply not in the cards. Our lives are research projects where the hypotheses keep changing, the variables are infinite, and new data arrives with every conscious moment. Assumptions about which we are completely confident at one moment may change utterly in the next: I am a husband, a son, a brother, a father, a scholar. I have a job I love. I have many friends. I am in perfect health. Until things change. And then how will I know who I am?

The same is true for you, and the changes will be more significant than those you make to your Facebook profile. You will fall in love; you will get dumped; you will win important jobs; you will be fired; you will, perhaps, have children. You will certainly lose loved ones.

If you are now strong and healthy, you may be severely injured or develop a chronic illness. If you are proud, you will be humbled. I realize that this sounds like a downer, but my point is this: These qualities and circumstances may shape you, but you must not let them define you. If you take time to reflect and re-evaluate when life surprises you, then you will develop a deeper understanding of who you are and who you are meant to be.

We human beings are designed to make meaning out of our experiences, and making meaning is tough work. Some attempts at self-definition are relatively mutable and superficial, like those based in political affiliations, food preferences or admiration for professional sports teams.

Other affiliations are more profound, like religious faith, ethnicity, gender identity, and others that deeply shape how we perceive the world and how others perceive us. Even these facets of our experience, however, are subject to doubt and reappraisal as we seek to make meaning of our lives. You have begun the process of building on these aspects of identity over the past four years. But you have not finished.

I hope Muhlenberg College has equipped you with the determination to continue exploring that combination of values, habits and beliefs that defines you.

As the ground shifts beneath your feet, as circumstances change, as relationships with those you cherish evolve, your task will always be to deepen your understanding of who you truly are — the essential qualities that will persist no matter what life throws at you.

Doing so will require of you many of the same traits that have enabled you to thrive at Muhlenberg: an openness to people who are different, a commitment to community, a focus on service to others, an interest in new ideas, a refusal to accept "received wisdom" — knowing that true wisdom cannot be received but must be forged in the crucible of experience.

I hope we have prepared you well for this lifelong research project. I hope you will draw on the friendships you have made, the lessons you have learned, and the insights you have achieved to live a life worthy of your potential.