Of Hills and Dales – 2015 Commencement Address

Michael Ward
Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford

Michael WardMichael Ward is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. He studied English at Oxford, theology at the University of Cambridge, and he has a Ph.D. in divinity from the University of St. Andrews. He served as chaplain of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, from 2009 to 2012, and of Peterhouse, Cambridge, from 2004 to 2007. He is the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press), co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press), and presenter of the BBC television documentary, The Narnia Code. On the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, November 22, 2013, Dr. Ward unveiled a permanent national memorial to him in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, London.

This brings me to my second point. (We’re still not at the end of my talk, but this is at least the beginning of the end.)

My second point has to do with Hillsdale’s name. I first heard the name “Hillsdale” in 2001, when an Oxford friend of mine, Andrew Cuneo, was appointed here as an English professor. I remember being immediately intrigued by Hillsdale from a purely philological point of view. Did the dale belong to the hill, I wondered? Was there a possessive apostrophe in there somewhere? Was it one particular hill’s dale? Or were there two or more hills with one dale somewhere in between them?

The more I mulled over the word, the more I liked it—it was something of an oxymoron. “Oxymoron” means literally, in Greek, a “sharp fool,” and you know the standard examples: bittersweet, deafening silence, open secret, pretty ugly, jumbo shrimp, journalistic integrity, bureaucratic efficiency, governmental restraint, French intelligence, American culture, British humility. So in the months when my friend Dr. Cuneo was preparing to leave Oxford and come to Hillsdale, I kept saying to him, “Where are you going again? What’s this college called? Peaksvale? Headstail? Topsbase? Tipspit?” I was particularly pleased with Tipspit because that’s a palindrome as well as an oxymoron.

I was all the more intrigued by the name because it had a certain resonance with the great novel I wrote in the years after I graduated. When I say I wrote this great novel, I don’t mean it was ever published. Nor that it was ever really written. But it was extensively imagined. As a 22-year-old graduate in English I thought I was ideally equipped to write the next great British novel, and I spent two-and-a-half years trying—and failing—to do this. And my story was set in an English village called Tordale—“Tor” of course meaning a crag or a rocky peak.

Now there is no actual place in England called Tordale. It was the inventing of my own pure brain, and I made the name up because I thought it would be a subtle yet very profound symbolic way of suggesting one of the great themes of the novel, which was that the highest doesn’t stand without the lowest; the head cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of thee.” The scriptural epigraph behind the whole work was going to be Psalm 95, verse 4: “In His hand are the depths of the earth: the strength of the hills is His also.”

This theme was of some personal significance to me because I was finding, in those years immediately after graduation, that I’d gone from the heights to the depths. I had had a glorious undergraduate experience at Oxford: I loved my subject; did well academically; made great friends; enjoyed sport and music and drama and church life. It was everything Jude the Obscure could have wanted. My best pal and I would sometimes crystallize this happiness by saying, “Ah, jolly Oxford days!” as if we were already octogenarians summoning up remembrance of things past. And then it all ended. I was back home living with my long-suffering parents; the opportunities and stimulation of college life suddenly withdrawn; relatively few friends; having to come gradually to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to be the next great British novelist.

In those two-and-a-half years, I earned precisely 250 pounds from my pen: 50 pounds every six months, so it was a regular income. But it was a major come-down. And I think quite a lot of people find the years straight out of college to be some of the hardest in life. All the educational framework which you’ve used to hold yourself up, and which in large part you’ve defined yourself by, is taken away and you’re like a climbing rose without a trellis. And you either lie on the ground and rot or allow yourself to be pruned and get turned into a rosebush which can stand in its own integrity.

I rotted for a while and became fairly depressed—I won’t pretend otherwise. But then, thank God, that mysterious thing happened that the psalmist mentions in Psalm 84, when he speaks of the man who, going through the vale of misery, makes it into a well. You lie there in the vale of misery, hitting your head on the ground; and slowly you become aware that the water collecting around you isn’t just made up of your own lachrymose self-pity. There’s a fresher source of water too. This was a mysterious moment of spiritual and psychological growth for me, but not one I’ll dwell on here because this is meant to be a Commencement speech, not a sermon.

Suffice it to say, from that point on things began to improve. By which I don’t mean that I jumped straight out of the trough and shot up the greasy pole of success again, nor that I just exchanged low spirits for high spirits. I began to realize that hills and dales are equally impostors—like Kipling’s triumph and disaster. Success can’t keep its promises and failure can’t hold its ground. One shouldn’t be bamboozled by either state. The important thing is not to be in a certain state, but to be a certain kind of person in whichever state you find yourself. Sure, I think one has a duty to do as much as one can to fulfill one’s potential, to strive for success, certainly to do good and avoid evil, but the outcome of one’s efforts is of secondary importance. To quote a certain wizard’s advice to a Mr. Underhill (significant name) who was lamenting that he lived in dark days: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Or to paraphrase Mother Teresa: We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.

I mention this so you don’t set too much store by the little biography about me that you may have read in today’s program. Remember: Commencement speakers are invited when they’re on the rise or enjoying a mountain view, rarely when they’re on the way down or in the dumps. But they know the dumps.

All this is by way of explaining the sudden delight I felt when I discovered that the fictional town of my own inventing, Tordale, had a counterpart in reality in the great State of Michigan. I was genuinely intrigued, and I seized the opportunity to come.

As I mentioned, my first visit to Hillsdale was intended to be only four days in duration: it turned out to be eight. Why? I arrived here on September 10, 2001. I was staying with my friend, Andrew Cuneo, and on September 11 he brought me onto campus at about nine in the morning. We walked into Delp Hall where his office was, and one of his colleagues greeted us and happened to mention some troubling news out of New York that he’d just heard—something about a plane and the World Trade Center. The rest of that terrible day unfolded and brought a ghastly timeliness to the lecture I was preparing to give on C.S. Lewis’s responses to war. It was a truly shocking event, an epoch-defining event. In the course of a morning the whole international outlook was plunged into crisis. That clear blue September sky was suddenly a cloud of dust and ash.

And so if my first charge to you is to rejoice in the light and air on the hilltop of liberty, my second charge is to take heart when faced with the valley of tears, whether that valley be (God forbid) a grim and grave reversal like that suffered by so many on 9/11, or a comparatively trivial setback like the doldrums I found myself in personally after graduating. You’ll have experienced many a low point in the course of your life already, I doubt not. So I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. But if my own experience is anything to go by, there’s a step change once you’re out of college, because, as I say, the whole framework of your life is now different. Now it’s much more up to you—or should I say down to you?—how you respond, how you forge a path through this life. That’s what caught me out for a while when I graduated. I wish someone had warned me of it. Perhaps they did and I just didn’t listen. But I can at least try to pass on to you what it seems no one told me.

And I say this not to depress you, but to forearm you, should you need forearming. At graduation I thought I’d arrived. Having done all I was told I should accomplish by way of earning a good degree from a good school, I thought I could expect life to unfurl smoothly before me in a series of ever more pleasant and successful scenes. It took me quite a while to realize that this wasn’t to be my lot, that this is the lot of nobody, and that life actually proceeds according to what C.S. Lewis calls the “law of undulation.” G.K. Chesterton called it the rolling English road.