I went home to my alma mater this past weekend.
Its brick sidewalks and tan buildings, its beautiful trees and hills, are just the way I left them. In many ways, Hillsdale is still mine. But I recognized fewer people this year and felt a sense of distance. Hillsdale is mine, but it is also no longer mine. It is mine through memory and a diploma, but still the place changes and people come and go and the pain of leaving becomes very real.
We are creatures who want to possess things. We delight in ownership, we receive gifts, we write our names in book jackets, and we call places our own.
As I walked the sidewalks and watched current students living the life that used to be mine, I realized that memory requires selflessness and sacrifice. If I were to come to Hillsdale College and demand that it was the same as when I left it, endless disappointment would greet me. The same is true for people we love.
Possession is no love at all.
Orual, the possessive older sister to Psyche in C.S. Lewis’ brilliant work Till We Have Faces, finally realizes this: “‘Oh Psyche, oh goddess,’ I said. ‘Never again will I call you mine; but all there is of me shall be yours. Alas, you know what it’s worth. I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver.’”
Through her possession, Orual loses her sister. In fact, she doesn’t just lose Psyche. She hinders Psyche from union to the gods. As her teacher tells her: “Mother and wife and child and friend will all be in league to keep a soul from being united with the Divine Nature.”
Possession not only prevents us from gaining the thing we love; it also works hard to prevent the good of another.
I was thinking about this story as I hugged professors and friends and walked the halls where only memories belong to me. Possession eats away life. Hillsdale can no longer belong to me if I impose upon it my own opinions and desires so that it is what I want it to be; not what it is on its own. Memories may be ours and memories can give us ownership and belonging only when they are willing to accept the natural state and the inevitable changes of another person or place. They can never bring back the past, but memories can live in hearts that love freely, and through this love we also gain the present.
Instead of demanding that a place or a friend are the same as they always were for us, we gain more and know more and see more when we allow those memories to be for us the loves and delights of a place, but never the chains that selfishly prevent change.
In so many ways, Hillsdale is just how I left it. It always will be. But it is also different, and loved by more people; people I will never know. This weekend was important for me. I realized that I not only can but also want to allow Hillsdale to grow and change and be who she is through the love and work of new students.
She will always be mine: the place that opened my eyes and my mind to beauty, truth, and goodness. She will always be the sidewalk where I met my husband and the classroom where I read Dante and the dining room where I shared many a meal. But she may continue to be those things to me only when I allow her to grow and change and move closer to fulfilling her mission in the world.
I do not wish Hillsdale College never to change, for that would be wishing her harm.
The past is like him, impervious, and can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world, like Phil, calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious. The memory can be hurt, time and again—but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it’s vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due. (The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty)