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President Coppola’s speech at Honors Convocation 2015

This morning as I was stepping out the back door, leaving for work, I tripped on the transition strip on the floor. . . again. One would think that after nearly two years I would not have to think to lift up my feet. I am usually aware of my surroundings, but every couple of weeks the transition strip catches my foot (and my attention!) after which I approach the door much more tentatively for a while.

In 2011, I was reading an article in Time magazine on what was being described as “The Boundary Effect.” The article was postulating why we sometimes or often forget what we were intending to do when we go from one room to another and then return to remember. The culprit: Doors.

Not so much the Sliding Doors (1998) or the doors of Butterfly Effect (2004) or Inception’s (2010) doors of consciousness described in psychological science fiction films, but the ordinary experience of transitions from one place to another.

Walking through doors changes the experienced context, in terms of the degree of immersion of a person in an environment, as suggested by some work in spatial cognition, or by a shift in context.

American writer, editor, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Sandburg, wrote in his 1957 poem, “Doors”:

An open door says, “Come in.”
A shut door says, “Who are you?”
Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors.
If a door is shut and you want it shut, why open it?
If a door is open and you want it open, why shut it?
Doors forget but only doors know what it is doors forget.

Carl Sandburg, “Doors” from The Sandburg Range. Copyright © 1957 by Carl Sandburg – 1878–1967 Carl Sandburg

Perhaps we underestimate the power of doors or transitions to help us forget, as well as help us to be transformed and think creatively. Some have suggested that open doors or arches are signs to the sacred as when one has to bend to enter the four-foot doorway at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or the transition hallways at Machu Picchu in Peru, where mountains themselves were considered by the Incans to be doors or bridges to the sacred.

I know this to be true, especially the part about doors. People at Keystone College actually hold the doors for others. It is a kind of courtesy or care that we extend to each other that says we are more than self-interested, and we are not too busy or too self-absorbed.  We think it is worth the extra two to three seconds to say to another, “Nice to see you. Welcome. Come on in.”

Perhaps the ordinary experiences of transitions are extraordinary. In fact, that is part of why we are here today; to celebrate the ordinary desire to excel and the extraordinary accomplishment that we actually succeed in being a caring, civil, community dedicated to excellence in our work and dedicated to each other. It is true enough that teachers, staff, and faculty offer transformational learning opportunities and open the doors of your minds and hearts, but you must choose to cross over, you must choose to enter a new space and way of living. You have chosen to enter through so many doors and grown so much these past years that you know that nothing is guaranteed.

In every transition, however, something is lost and much is gained. The acorn to the oak; the chrysalis to the butterfly; Charon’s ferry ride across the river Styx; ashes transformed into a phoenix; whether real or in myth, transitions are strips of time in our lives, and we are crossing one now together.

For those of you who are seniors, we wish you could stay, but we know you must go. Fearlessly practice opening your hearts, opening doors, and opening your minds. Only then will you love more deeply, welcome more readily, and think and act more creatively.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) correctly observed that we are what we repeatedly do when he said, “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And if we are in the habit of repeatedly seeking truth, living goodness, working towards unity, and fostering beauty, then we are on the journey of living virtuous lives. Similarly, being flexible and open to growth is not an isolated act; it is a habit, a virtue. Forgiveness is not a one-off; it is a habit, a virtue that sustains relationships. And learning and loving is not a one-day or one-semester affair; it is a way of life.

We gather today to celebrate the best of us who have chosen to open their hearts, doors, and minds to the challenges of virtue and success. No matter what transition strips we walk over today, tomorrow or in the distant future, we need not be timid or tentative because we are destined to make a meaningful difference in the world through our talents, time, tenderness, and commitments.

Thank you for taking this next important step and living in the virtue and life of your transitions now.

David L. Coppola, Ph.D.