Who are we?
By Michael J. Graham, S.J.
I came back to the dorm from a Friday night dinner a couple of weeks back and, as usual, I poked my head into the RA office to have a brief chat with whomever was on duty. It turned out to be a longer chat than I was expecting.
He wasn’t one of the usual RAs I see in my building. Turned out he was on loan from The Village across campus, filling in for someone else. Turned out further that he is a junior pre-med major, and so going through a pretty demanding time. “Taken your MCAT yet?” I asked. He said that he had. “So how did you do?” He said he thought he did pretty well. That led naturally enough to a conversation about where he would like to go to medical school. “Actually, Father,” he said, “my first choice is UC.” And then he paused and smiled a wan and rueful sort of smile. “If they’re still taking kids from Xavier, that is.” Well, I started to laugh and assured him that, indeed, UC’s Medical School would still take students from Xavier University, the “Troubles of December” notwithstanding.
But then he got all quiet, as if he had just edged up against the question he had wanted to ask all along without even knowing that he wanted to ask it: “Father, are we going to be all right?”
Well, that took the wind out of me. Not something I was expecting when I had poked my head into the RA office, coming in from dinner and heading up to my room. Here was this junior, full of life and all its possibilities, suddenly asking a question that, despite its brevity, contained so much. I found myself wondering just how much he must love this place to ask a question like that, and if somewhere deep inside, his heart might be breaking. And how many others—students or whomever—might be wondering the very same thing, and for the very same reasons? “Father, are we going to be all right?”
But all that flew through my head in a flash. No time to take a big long pause lest he think that I’m wondering that question myself, and that’s not the answer he needs. “Yeah, Joe, [not his name, but it will do], we’re going to be all right. We’re going to be all right. And this is why I know we will be.”
Then I proceeded to tell him about any number of conversations I have been having with Xavier people over the last number of weeks. Somewhere, somehow, they always end up saying something along the lines of, “That isn’t [or this isn’t] who we are.” It seems to be the one thing on which every Xavier person agrees. And somewhere along the line, it struck me that the statement, “That isn’t who we are,” contains within it a very important implicit question: “Who, then, are we?” And right behind that question, there’s an answer: “This is who we are.” But right behind that answer in turn is the most important thing of all, and it’s the heart that affirms that answer—the muscle, the passion, the blood, the will, the hopes, the determination and the desire that has set its jaw forward to the future with a smile.
I’ve seen it over and over again, Xavier people wanting to find new and better ways to say, “This is who we are.” It’s as if there’s a great turning going on, a turning away from December and what others said of us and toward the future and what we will say of ourselves. My Cabinet and I are right in the middle of crafting the architecture that will guide our next strategic plan. And if you don’t believe that that simple statement—This is who we are—is very much on our minds as we do so, well friends, I’m here to assure you that it most certainly is.
And so on and on in this vein I went, maybe in part to convince myself that this thing that I know to be true is even truer than I know it to be. Whatever. But it seemed to do him a world of good. You could see a burden kind of fall off him as he recovered the lightness of spirit that a kid his age should have. And, truthfully, the rest of us along with him.
But, you know what? I kind of lied to him, and so I am coming to all of you for confession. Because we are not going to be “all right.” I’m not even remotely interested in “all right.” What I’m interested in is something a great deal better than “all right.” I’m interested in extraordinary. Because that’s who we are already. And who we will be even more, next December and beyond.