On the first day of school, English teacher Mary Shepley shared a poem with me. Mary’s husband, Peter, had shared the same poem with her as she traveled to St. Johnsbury for her teaching interview years ago. I have included the poem in its entirety below:
For a New Beginning
By John O’Donohue
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plentitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your heart’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
The poem speaks about new beginnings and the courage it takes to embrace new opportunities as well as the joy that comes from discovery. The second plank of our mission is Inquiry—“To foster a love for learning by challenging individuals to pursue knowledge, creativity, and intellectual self-reliance.” Donohue’s poem beautifully describes the internal struggle that we experience as we live a life of inquiry—a struggle that is central to learning and growing.
The first stanza of the poem describes the speaker’s perception of a loved one’s first stages of inquiry: a feeling that something is missing, that the status quo is insufficient—an “emptiness” that makes life drudgery. The second stanza builds upon that feeling, describing the spiritual unrest—the “turmoil” that sparks authentic inquiry. These two stanzas describe the root of all inquiry—a realization that the “seduction of safety” and the “gray promises of sameness” are not fulfilling, do not answer the questions that most need to be answered, and certainly do not allow for the discovery of the answers which will prove the most meaningful. The speaker frames the essential question as wondering, “if you’d always live like this.”
The fourth and fifth stanzas form my favorite part of the poem as they describe the movement from asking the question to the courageous, risk-taking, and rejuvenating act of inquiry. If questioning comes from a place of unrest, inquiry—actually pursuing those questions until they are answered—comes from curiosity, passion, and commitment. The speaker describes a scene that reminds me of Bilbo Baggins stepping out of his hobbit hole, or Miranda’s exclamation in The Tempest, “O brave new world that has such people in it!” Only if we take this first brave step can we experience the “delight” of discovery, the power of our passions, “the grace of beginning” a journey “that is at one with [our] heart’s desire.” Failing to question or failing to inquire about things that really matter to us leaves us trapped in an intellectual grayness, submitting to other people’s questions and accepting other people’s answers. To be truly alive intellectually, we need more.
The final stanza highlights what, for me, has been the attraction of the intellectual life: adventure. Inquiring and learning are true adrenaline rushes for me. There is so much I don’t know, so much to learn! I don’t even know what I don’t know; there’s so much to question! Every time I ask a question, every time I commit myself to inquiring to find an answer, every time I intentionally set out to learn more, allowing myself to dream that there is more—to my job, my interests, my life—I risk my comfortable world view in which I have things figured out and in which I see myself as well-informed, reasonable, and right. But, as I get comfortable with being uncomfortable, the joy and peace of having found a new truth, a fuller truth—one that resonates with my soul—is so exciting that I can’t wait to set off on another adventure.
In this year of Inquiry, I am fortunate to have many traveling companions among our students, faculty, and staff. We invite you to come along on your own adventurous journey toward discovery.