Live to Tell the Tale
Class Oration by Wei-Hung Cheng '12
Most of us have dreamed at one point or another of wandering into worlds of fantastic circumstances, if only we can find the right wardrobe or train platform. We prefer to escape from the terrors of this world into those of another, which we think we’ll find more interesting. We then neglect the fact that our lives are filled with wonder already, and that our own struggles mirror those of the heroes and heroines we so ardently admire. We’re writing our own stories as we live, our very own protagonists, living out the unique plot of our lives.
We’ve all heard stories, tales of adventure, intrigue…questionable judgment. While it’s not often that we get to sit around a fire listening to a storyteller tell tales of faraway lands, the dynamic of a storytelling tradition still lives on today, sometimes in its old, familiar guise, and sometimes in strange new states. Log on to Facebook, Twitter, or any other social networking site, and it quickly becomes apparent that people are intent on telling their own story. While this most often seems to take the form of angsty one-liners and other mundane banalities, it’s not difficult to see that stories are the cornerstone of all these modern innovations. The very essence of social interaction is storytelling. And how does this relate to us, the collective class of 2012? I believe that the most important part of my experience here wasn’t the classes I took, or the skills I garnered, but instead the stories I’ve heard. I say this because, without stories, my life would’ve been without friendship. Friendships are built upon trading stories. In a friendship, we’re allowed access to the tale of another individual’s life, an amazing thing to think about. This is the definition of living vicariously through others. When we listen to someone else’s experiences, it’s as if we’re living through that person, and our own experiences are then shaded by those of others.
Here, let me tell you a story. It’s a classic Joseph Campbell monomyth: there’s a call to adventure, descent into the underworld, and acquisition of secret knowledge. This one’s about a boy who was sent far away from the comfort of his home, to a land where people eat cake for breakfast. Of course, coming from a land where people eat balls of rice for breakfast, he didn’t judge. Having a chronic lack of social skills, he was concerned that no one would want to associate with him. To his surprise, he became part of a group of friends, people who would shape the rest of his life. They were there with him on spring weekends, the warm sun and pleasant breeze making it the perfect weather to stay indoors, mashing a keyboard and screaming good-naturedly at the monitor. They were also there for him when, on a cold winter night, his mother called to explain in tearstained syllables that his father had died. The boy walked into his friends’ room, sat down on the bed, and talked through clenched teeth and swollen eyes. His friends embraced him. In that moment, he felt the sheer nakedness of his soul, the raw humanity that was him. He was incurably human. And it was okay, because they were human, too. That moment defined the rest of his experience, a flashbulb memory in a sea of faded photographs. And so the hero lives to tell the tale, rising half-dead from the underworld with a newfound ability to connect his story with those of others. He had found happiness in the space between people.
That’s a story I think many of us can relate to, strange foreign land or not. The point is, NMH consists of a community that has a place for everyone. Whatever our niches were, we found somewhere comfortable for us during our time here, and flourished as a result. We need context to understand ourselves. In a vacuum, the ideas, concepts, and combined knowledge in our brains add up to absolutely nothing; but given a context, a world to work in, our skills and thoughts become meaningful. For me, the context was always people. Having been the socially inept and friendless recluse for most of my life, it was difficult for me to grasp the idea that other people had lives too, lives filled with just as much complexity as mine. It’s hard to fully comprehend the breadth of this world. When I studied in Taiwan, my favorite subject was life science, simply because I was learning about things that I could see and touch. At NMH, I learned of the complexities of literature, and English became my favorite class for much the same reason. It wasn’t that I could touch and see the things that the author was writing about, but rather the fact that literature aims to create a facsimile of its creator’s intent, the essence of a person or idea. I was intoxicated by the experiences in books; they introduced me to new characters; they added decades to my short existence; they gave it meaning. This is what NMH affords us: a sense of context. We sculpt each other constantly, our bodies and minds a blur of palimpsest as the tired flesh and stale ideas of yesterday are sloughed off to make space for grander creations.
Our tales became entangled when we set foot on this campus, our own stories mingling with those of others. Together, we make an immense saga, an epic brimming with heroes, ready to take on whatever adversities may arise. Like the flowering forces of the Greeks who assaulted Troy, we will rise to the occasion and prevail against our foes in innovative (and perhaps, if the situation calls for it, even underhanded) ways. NMH has changed us. Take a good look at the people around you, your fellows and friends for the past several years. You’ve left your mark on each other, and also on NMH. You are part of their story, a part of who they are today. You don’t need your name on a plaque to preserve your name and deeds. As long as your story lives on in the lives of those you touched, you will not be forgotten.
So here we are, coming close to the end of this tale of adventure, the winds of fate and fortune drawing our stories apart once more. But it’s not the end for us, far from it. This is but the end of a chapter. New plotlines await us out there in the world. How will we, now heroes, face the terrible and wonderful world at large? What character developments are in store for us? Will we find our grails, or our true love? We hold the pen that’s jotting down our tale, its ink our lifeblood. Better get scribbling before it dries up forever. As the Nexus 6 replicant Roy in Blade Runner remarks, “…all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Now that’s one heck of a story, the gist of which is that our lives are fragile, human moments to be obliterated on nature’s whim, and it’d be wasteful to do nothing with them. When I came to this school, I didn’t expect to question the fundamental workings of the universe, face death, or write poetry. I didn’t think my story was going to be interesting, because I didn’t think it could be. Turns out life is one big self-fulfilling prophecy, and all I needed to do was stop being uninteresting, and start being awesome instead.
So go out there and be awesome; tell stories! Tell the world all about the time you took a wrong turn and ended up in an abandoned bomb shelter, or that one time someone broke into “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the middle of A-block calculus on a whim. But more importantly, tell people what you learned from those experiences. Stories are meant to be shared. Impart your knowledge to others. Spread the word. Your word. The world will listen.