On Sunday, Curry College held its 140th commencement exercises, and I was particularly proud of one moment during the ceremony. For the first time in my career, a student I nominated for a campus-wide award won that very prize. In this case, I think it was likely because she received nominations from faculty and staff across campus. She is a double major with a very high GPA who has been an orientation leader, resident assistant, leader in multiple clubs, and…most importantly of course…a member of Sing! and Accelerando. So when I heard that Victoria Parks won Curry’s most prestigious “New Era Award”, I was celebrating someone whom I knew deserved the honor she received.
Yesterday, I was far more surprised by another award. Curry’s Excellence in Teaching Committee recognized me for “Excellence and Scholarship in the Field”. They cited my two recent commissions—Stars Beyond and The Field (Ubi caritas)—organizing the “Voice &…” workshops on campus in February (with Laurel Irene and David Harris), and placing in two composition competitions (The American Prize and the Walter Hussey Composition Competition) as evidence. It was a lovely way to end my tenure at Curry and provided an opportunity to reflect on all that has happened in the past year.
Praise is a fickle master, though. These honors are only snapshots representing months or even years of effort. They feel wonderful to receive—who doesn’t want to be recognized for their work? But there is also a danger here. If we see our self-worth only through the lens of how others respond to us, we may start to think that in the absence of awards, we aren’t doing good work. If this is the case, what happens if there is no next award?
On the other hand, how many artists, scientists, and leaders created amazing work only to be dismissed by their peers? Where would our world be without individuals persevering even when the world ignored or berated them? Albus Dumbledore’s description of the Mirror of Erised also describes the peril of seeking praise, “Men have wasted away before it, not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.”
Dumbledore continues, perhaps paraphrasing Samuel Silas Curry, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Awards are wonderful moments, and they deserve to be enjoyed while they last. At the same time, they are always fleeting and temporary. What really matters is finding joy in the work that both precedes and follows a moment of recognition. Our greatest fulfillment often rests in process. (By the way, feel free to remind me of this if ever I seem discouraged—we all forget.)
Thus, even as I celebrate both Victoria’s and my accolades, I remember the wise words of Robert Frost, most beautifully set by Randall Thompson:
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.