A version of this full essay—offered here as a two-part blog—was initially presented by Biola University Associate Professor, Jane E. Kim, at the commencement ceremony for the Torrey Honors College on May 10, 2019.
It has become something of a tradition in my program for faculty to draw from children’s books in sharing words of wisdom with graduating students. It may seem a kind of perverse prank on the part of the faculty to cause our students to labor for years over dense and difficult texts, only to celebrate their achievement with fairy tales. And yet, perhaps it is entirely appropriate to want to mark the end of a long journey by leaving our graduates with a story—a bedtime story, of sorts—before sending them on their way.
“Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep…” This is how the narrator of The Little Prince (or Le Petit Prince, if you studied it, as I did, in school in French class) wishes he could begin his tale. He doesn’t for the sake of the grown-ups, but we’ll get into that in a moment. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic tells the story of a little prince who grows unhappy on his home planet Asteroid B-612 and journeys to different planets before visiting Earth, where he befriends a pilot who has made a crash landing in the Sahara desert. The book has been described as a children’s book for adults, and, true to this characterization, it is a book concerned with the paradoxes of our human experience. As my students know well, I love paradoxes. I speak often in my classes of those elusive puzzles that awaken our awareness of the limits of human understanding, those theological mysteries within which human and divine logic both converge and diverge. And so now, I want to give you, the graduates, a gift of four secrets—four paradoxical secrets—from The Little Prince.
The first secret is that you should always remain a child. From perhaps your first day on campus, and many times since, you have heard faculty and administrators urging you, and rightly, to grow up, to mature, to become adults. But today, on your college graduation, the date many will consider your entry into adulthood, I want to tell you to be a child. One of the first things we learn about the enigmatic little prince is his impatience for those he calls “grown-ups.” As the narrator explains: When you tell [grown-ups] about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much money does his father make?’ Only then do they think they know him. If you tell grown-ups, ‘I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,’ they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.’ Then they exclaim, ‘What a pretty house!’… Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again. Some of you, when you came to college, were already grown-ups, and some of you, as your families might attest, were never children. You strode into the world as little engineers, accountants, or lawyers. To you, I think the little prince would have said: you must be born again.
Thomas Traherne, seventeenth-century poet, tells us that to be born again and to become a little child in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven is no easy calling. It is not simply adopting a posture of reliance on God, but it is attaining a purity of soul through “unlearn[ing]” (Centuries 3.3) the ways of the world. Traherne writes: “For we must disrobe ourselves of all false colours, and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts must be infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men’s conceits and customs” (3.5). It is in this unlearning that we relearn what we might have known instinctively in childhood—a holy foolishness that marks us as “strangers to the thoughts and opinions” of the world. As we divest ourselves of evil habits, we regain more of, what both Traherne and St. Irenaeus describe as, the childlike innocence of Adam and Eve, who could inherit creation with the wonder and delight of children receiving the express gift of their Father.
Seniors, I hope that you have learned, matured, and become adults. I also hope that you have unlearned and that you leave more childlike than when you began.
Secret Number Two: To redeem time, you must spend it, but in ways that refresh your soul. Along his journey, the little prince encounters a salesclerk who sells pills invented to quench thirst. “Why do you sell these pills?” the little prince asks.
“They save so much time,” the salesclerk responds. “Experts have calculated that you can save fifty-three minutes a week.”
“And what do you do with those fifty-three minutes?”
“Whatever you like.”
“If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked,” the little prince says to himself, “I’d walk very slowly toward a water fountain…” To drink water is not simply to quench thirst, as the pilot later learns after a walk with the little prince that ends with the discovery of a village well. It is the long walk through the desert, the groaning song of the rope and pulley, and the effort of the arms that constitute the sweetness of the drink.
For many of you, time management was the first and most important lesson of the college experience, and I expect that, as you enter into the next phase of your lives, the way you view and experience time will shift again in significant ways. With new constraints and changing priorities, regular slow walks to the water fountain may not be as feasible as before. For those times, I want to remind you of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth and his concept of the “spots of time” (Prelude 11.258). The spots of time, he writes, are those intense moments that, when remembered, have the ability to “nourish and invisibly repair” our minds when we become “depressed” or weighed down by “false opinion” or the “deadly weight” of “trivial occupations, and the round of ordinary intercourse.” These moments occur throughout our lives, but perhaps most prominently in childhood, and Wordsworth’s own spots of time often involve haunting and fearsome experiences of nature in his youth. It is in recalling those timeless and indescribably profound moments, like the sudden rising up of a vast cliff as he rows across a lake in a stolen boat, or the brief encounter with an old soldier on a lonely country path at night, that he gathers the courage to begin his work as a poet, overcomes the disappointment of deep loss, and, in his later and wearier years, is restored to creative vision.
Sometime ago, I was asked what was my favorite part of teaching. My answer was those moments, which I have come to call “Amen moments,” which occur in class, often in the third hour (or, for me, in the fifth or sixth hour of teaching that day), where, after a series of false starts, awkward pauses, and grueling hours of lackluster discussion, we finally discover something. That something begins to gain momentum until suddenly someone puts the pieces together and expresses a beautiful truth that makes sense of all our searching, and we all sit back in our seats for a few seconds and let out a collective “mmmmm.” These moments of deep appreciation of shared truth that we had together will be the spots of time that I draw upon when I am feeling tired in a class with new students who have not yet acquired your camaraderie, focus, or grace. I hope you will remember them too.
Graduates, may spots of time renew you, but remember that investing in walks to water fountains is far more rewarding than purchasing thirst-quenching pills.
. . .
There are two final paradoxical secrets that are just as compelling and refreshing as the two presented here today. We invite you back again—for a slow walk to the fountain—via a reading of Reflections for Graduates from the Little Prince (Part Two), available on the blog tomorrow.