I can’t tell you how my drawing class in the monastery on Memorial Drive or James Wood’s close reading of English novelist Henry Green or Diana Eck’s lecture on Gandhi and satyagraha improved my reporting in Rwanda and Chad and Congo, but I know it did. My work in the years immediately after my Fellowship was different. My mind was freer, my perceptions sharper, my sense of purpose heightened. The effect was profound.
I remember the end of the final lecture in John Parker’s Shakespeare course in the fall of 2005. It was December 20th. A dear friend of mine would die far too young a few days later. We were studying “The Tempest.” John was making the argument that one of the great benefits of attending theater is identifying with the characters, watching the spectacle as if you had a stake in the outcome, putting yourself in others’ shoes, in this case Prospero’s as he feels his mortality acutely.
Then, suddenly, John paused and looked out at his audience of mostly undergraduates. “Look at you,” he said. “You’re beautiful. What is this miniscule interlude that is your life? Shakespeare would say it’s a play!”
It was an electric moment. John was leaving Harvard. It was his last lecture. His message was clear: You get your time on stage. Use it well. He said a bit more, about Prospero contemplating oblivion, and then he closed his books and walked off the stage himself, without looking back, without saying goodbye.
It’s a good Nieman message, too: Whatever it is you’re here for, get on with it.