by Peter V. Rajsingh to the
University of Auckland
May 7, 2103, Aotea Center
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Members of Council, Members of the University, Graduands, Families and Friends…
Kia ora koutou katoa!
Heartiest congratulations to our Graduands – accomplished, celebrated, intelligent sparks of pure potentiality.
It’s an extraordinary honour and delight to be with you all today.
Here in New Zealand, over 20 years since going to live in New York, I can’t help but be moved by being back in this country and at this University, both of which played a deeply formative role that prepared me for many later challenges and opportunities.
You can leave New Zealand but New Zealand never leaves you.
I’m sure you too will look back in years to come, as I constantly do, recalling your time at Auckland University as some of the most wonderful moments of your lives.
With due credit to David Foster Wallace, from whom I’ve borrowed and adapted this, I’d like to share a little fable.
Imagine two young, native New Zealand birds chattering atop a beautiful Pohutakawa tree.
Their playful banter is abruptly cut short when an older relative flies up and joins them.
“G’day fellas!” he exclaims. “How’s the air up here?”
The young birds look at the each other, puzzled. One then retorts: “What the heck is Air?”
Let’s reflect upon the message here…
As we proceed through life, it’s easy to begin taking things for granted – to become complacent and simply not perceive the stuff around us that enables us to live and breathe.
When they’re learning to fly, young birds must negotiate the critical relationship with air. But once the skill feels mastered, the relevance of the air in which birds swoop and swarm seems to fade to an inconsequence.
I would like to suggest to you that air for all of us here today, is a worthy ongoing metaphor, a metaphor that I’m going to stretch. For one thing, in New Zealand where clean and fresh air is found in relative abundance, we often don’t realize how precious a commodity air really is.
But I’m interested in other interpretations of air.
We can also consider that a first class tertiary education, such as the one we’ve been privileged to receive at Auckland Uni, is also a form of air — an elemental experience meant to continuously refresh and oxygenate the spirit. Education, like air, is something we must never disregard nor forget.
In an age where almost everything tends to be commodified, or treated instrumentally as a means to an end, we also often lose sight of significant aspects of what an education stands for, such as its relationship to the contemplative life of the mind and the responsibilities that come with it.
For the Ancients, this was a given. Education and intellectual virtue are ends in themselves, and freighted with serious moral purpose.
For this point too, birds provide various important lessons.
In their long migrations, birds fly in V and J formations, conserving energy by taking advantage of wind fields created by the wing motions of their fellows in front. When those at the head of the formation tire, other birds take the lead, their actions helping others in the flock – the efforts of the leaders contributing to pulling all the others along.
This image reflects part of the moral purpose of an education – it prescribes a duty to contribute positively, putting knowledge to work in a responsible way in the service not only of ourselves, but for the greater good.
One of the misunderstandings that sometimes arises when you come from a small and airy country is the idea of not mattering, of being irrelevant in the larger world.
Here again we must remember our two young birds. Air, that stuff in which we move, can never simply not concern us. We change our air by the way we navigate through it, creating various kinds of ripples and slipstreams. Whatever we do has relevance for the people around us and the broader society writ large.
And so it is with how we chose to live, the goals we set and the purposes to which we dedicate ourselves.
From the time of the Great migration of the Maori to Aotearoa, Kiwis venturing into the unknown and excelling, is an enduring national ethos.
Consider notable New Zealanders – Edmund Hillary, Katherine Mansfield, Lord Ernest Rutherford, Kiri Te Kanawa, Graham Liggins, the list goes on – all these people holding their own on the global stage.
At the same time, being geographically removed from global group think has its distinct advantages. New Zealanders are possessed of a unique sense of proportion, practicality, creativity and common sense.
It’s imperative we never lose what’s distinctive and special about New Zealand and incumbent upon you, the future generation, to ensure that New Zealand does not allow itself to stray — by forgetting what is our air and thereby replicating dystopian social realities found elsewhere.
Untenable circumstances now plague the rest of the world – from stark social inequalities to massive indebtedness, political corruption, to food and water insecurities and environmental degradation.
Those of you who will become future leaders must try to develop more sustainable ways of being – both social, economic and political – cognizant of how aspects of contemporary life have placed us upon a slippery slope to ruin.
My connection to New Zealand was a lucky accident. At fifteen I wanted to go away to boarding school and had never been to New Zealand, which was maybe part of the appeal. But ultimately, I probably can credit coming here also on a bird.
I was around 6 or 7 when a Kiwi friend of my parents gave me a vinyl EP of Alwyn Owens “Puki and the Birds Singing Contest.” This introduced me to the idea of New Zealand.
I can’t remember much of the plot, but the song of the Tui [Whistle] from the story is still lodged in my mind.
This random encounter with New Zealand birds that turned into an education carries a lesson for me.
Life is as much about lucky coincidences and confluences as it is about purposeful effort and active agency.
We must learn how to combine conscious effort with natural progression. Properly using your wings is important, but then there are air currents that come out of nowhere which you catch that cause you to soar, gliding and ascending to heights you never could imagine.
And all the while as we travel, we must have an ongoing sense of gratitude for those things that are our Air, their quality and buoyancy, both literally and figuratively.
We should also ever recognize and acknowledge the array of facts, some solidly positive and some bad even, that cannot be taken for granted or ignored.
This is how we open ourselves up, to the concrete and abstract qualities that constitute our Air, making and remaking ourselves in the existential flight called life.
Before concluding, I’d like to share a quick piece of information. Make a note of a number: 09 215 6754. It’s for a place on Karangahape Road where you can go to get your unwanted tattoos removed.
Graduands – Congratulations and please take this message to heart…be vigilant and mindful and remember what is Air…Fly high, lift those around you, land well!
Best of luck and thank you.
By Peter V. Rajsingh.