You have seven mountains to climb to find your true self

Thank you, Class of 2020, for offering me the opportunity to speak to you on this most important day. You climbed a mountain, you reached the peak, and here you sit before me, victors all; I’m thrilled to share your joy.

Your next step will be to take a short breath and consider the mountains to come.   

That might involve school, a job, or blocking out extended time to ponder what you’re meant to do in life, to find your calling as they say. I do not mean to be exclusive but I have a special place in my heart for those called to be poets and contemplatives.

When I think of life as climbing mountains, the “Purgatorio” of Dante Alighieri comes to mind, the second part of the “Divine Comedy.”

In grand poetic style, Dante says the struggle a person faces to find his true self involves not one but seven mountains. And each mountain represents a type of suffering we must go through to rid ourselves of the sin, vices, peccadillos, the falsity that keeps us confined.

Like the Desert Fathers, he called those barriers-to-selfhood “seven deadly sins,” each an attitude-cum-behavior that turns us against ourselves.

Among them are: being envious of what other people have or do (envy); acting with rage in our interactions with others (wrath); seeking more than we need in life (greed); and using power like a god to protect our possessions (pride).

In his classic work “Fear and Trembling,” the Danish philosopher-poet Søren Kierkegaard says the purgatory experience involves a scrubbing away of the rust of falsity so a person can be “that self which one truly is.” Refusing to do so, he says, is a sign of despair.

The 20th-Century psychoanalyst Carl Rogers highlighted Kierkegaard’s assessment this way: (1) the most common form of despair is “not choosing,” that is, avoiding the risk “to be oneself;” and (2) the most deadly form of despair is to choose to become someone else.

Kierkegaard and Rogers both saw that scaling the mountains to become one’s true self is the greatest responsibility we have to ourselves.

And Dante said that, when a person faces up to the transformations purgatory exacts, he becomes a spiritual being, that is, he lives with an equanimity close to happiness.

And “spiritual” does not mean something wispy and ethereal but the life of a body grounded in purpose, a body in communion with others, when political and economic realities align with justice.

In the third part of his trilogy, the “Paradiso,” Dante says no one gets to heaven who’s at odds with himself; heaven is for those who answer their calling. Such people treat others like they want to be treated, what Christians call being “Christ-like.”

The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), forever interested in human growth, saw what Dante, Kierkegaard, and Rogers saw but through a different lens.

He said, as he walked down the street, he could see in people’s faces “unlived lines,” signs of emptiness.

In the 12th poem of Book II of “The Book of Hours,” he says every forfitter’s “true face never speaks” wrapped as it is in a mask, a mask that thickens as faces are put on and cast off like old clothes.

“Somewhere there must be storehouses,” Rilke says, “where all these lives are laid away/like suits of armor or old carriages/or clothes hanging limply on the walls./Maybe all the paths lead there/to the repository of unlived things.”

Lived things have no falsity because they reflect the realized dreams Sigmund Freud spoke of in “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

We hardly hear the word “calling” anymore because long ago the Catholic Church took it over and limited its meaning to when a person becomes a priest or a nun — and, of course, the only voice worth hearing is the voice of God. Thus, all the revelations that come from the conversations we have with ourselves, deep in consciousness, are written off.

And, when we say “having a conversation with ourselves,” who is that other voice? Who are we talking to? Whatever you say, it’s certain that that voice, at its deepest, offers radical insights into our destiny and, like an empathetic friend, encourages us to persevere.

In “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” the noted New York Times columnist David Brooks says he is well aware of the pains of purgatory, and that there’s always another mountain.

And he may have added a new sin to Dante’s list: that of being an abstracted person, living an unlived life in personal relationships with others.

Brooks says that, although he achieved great fame as a journalist and thinker, the climb up the mountain-of-success rendered him “aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative, at least when it came to my private life.” Sounding like Augustine of Hippo he confesses, “I sidestepped the responsibilities of relationship.

Dear Graduates, I beg your pardon for raising such weighty issues as you, your family, and friends are aching to go out for a bite and hoist a glass in your honor.

Take your time, enjoy the day, these questions will be here tomorrow: Who will you be in public? Who will you be in private? Will you live an unlived life and sport a face of unlived lines?

And remember, only Walt Whitman-like candor can move a person from purgatory home.

The rock musician Eddie Money used to sing a line: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise.”

I’ve got two too, one for me and the other for, well, what are you doing for the rest of your life?