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Sands of Time: The Whole Thing about Exposure to Greatness

Ran Xia describes a unique educational program at Farleigh Dickinson University for both students and professors.

Illustration of Arcadia
(© Ran Xia)
"Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time." – A Psalm of Life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I sit inside a dark theatre with the stage lit up in front of me; I imagine myself exposed to greatness: the epitome of humanity, blossoming in the form of stories and images…it's magic, the essence of life, the precipitation of history, the sands of time.

The whole thing about exposure to greatness led to the birth of Sands of Time: Fairleigh's educational program in which students and professors alike, see, listen, watch and experience the greatest aspects of creativity and contemplate what it means to be human. The token membership is a sketchbook filled with blank pages, one of those things that are bigger on the inside: a small, modest looking booklet, containing gems of inspiration, images sketched from corners of the world; fascinating ideas that pop up unexpectedly …

Professor Eli Amdur told me how it started. The name, of course, comes from Longfellow's poem, but his college-year-memory was the root of all. He recalls a professor of his vividly: "He walked with a severe limp from the abuse he suffered in the concentration camp, carrying an old leather satchel. We would sit at a marble bench as he answered my question…it wasn't long before we're off the subject, and before you realize, it's two hours later and there're 12 of us sitting around. Nothing from the classroom could be equal to what happened there." On Friday afternoons, Eli's English literature professor used to open the door of his huge Victorian house. "We read, we talked, we discussed, and I came out of there with a far better understanding of what the world is all about than I did in maintaining my GPA."

Just like what his professors did back then, Eli decided to opens doors for students. "I got the idea at 3 o'clock in the morning. I jumped out of the bed and called late President Michael Adams. The rest is just logistics." Confucius did it, the Greeks did it, we're doing it…we chitchat and expose ourselves to greatness.

Eli likes to say that a straight line is the first human invention, for the natural world functions in circles. I think that includes the knowledge passed on through lineage of incredible humans, and we stand in the middle of eternity as witnesses.

Being in a metropolitan area, we are at the intersection of the world's cultural exchanges. Sands of Time has taken me to Edison's lab, Barnes Foundation; we've watched thought-provoking plays and listened to the jewels of musical creations: Hayden's symphony, Verdi's opera, Stravinsky, Beethoven…we savored the best of times and the greatest gifts from our ancestry. We also met a 93-year-old man who lived four miles away from the botanical gardens, walking back and forth every day offering free tours to the visitors. He knew every plant, every type of rose and palm tree: he's the living connection between nature and humanity!

The most memorable trip was to Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth): an outdoor sculpture garden and estate in Warwick, NY. Creator Frederick Franck described the place as a "trans-religious sanctuary [...] an oasis of solitude, art, inspiration and natural beauty." Franck's garden offers a space for people to stop and appreciate the longevity of our life as a species rather than individuals…I sat on the aromatic grass on that summer afternoon and heard Septimus Hodge's wisdom:

"We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again." ---Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

"The meaning of life is to see," said Hui Neng. Indeed we are spectators of the play called life. But just like how Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, we are also all playing our parts in the making of the stories; we discover the greatness of mankind as we create it.


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