(This is the text of a little chapel talk I was asked to give on the theme of our school’s erstwhile Latin motto.)
First, the translation: Esse quam videri means “to be, rather than to seem.” We might also say, “To be rather than to appear to be,” or “value the authentic over the superficial.”
It’s a fine motto for any occasion, but I especially think it’s an excellent guiding principle for a school.
I’ve even taken an interest in the many adventures of the decorative pillar that displays the motto here on campus. When I first arrived ten years ago, the pillar was over by the north side of the humanities building, sort of where the headmaster’s parking space is today, only it wasn’t a parking space back then. It was a lovely, peaceful area surrounded by trees and hedges; a perfect place to contemplate Latin mottos.
But then there were several dark years during which the pillar occupied an awkward and undignified place next to the lacrosse fields and directly in front of the portable toilet that appears there every year like a hideous early-spring perennial. I suspect the placement was more to try to disguise the port-a-potty than to denigrate the pillar, but the end result was always sort of incongruous and sad.
Happily, the pillar seems to have found a new home on the southwest corner of the humanities building, where the walkways between all of our buildings converge. I think this central location is a much more appropriate choice, because that pillar bears a message that we really ought to encounter on a regular basis.
Amidst the hustle and bustle and stress of the school week, our Latin motto urges us not to waste time on superficial or unworthy things. As you rush past on your way to art or science class, it reminds you not to obsess over your image, but instead, try to be worthy of and true to your values.
Esse quam videri warns us not to chase external rewards, because they nourish only the ego and the ego is never really satisfied. If you care too much about external validation, you’ll end up driven by a desire for the awards you want and plagued with disappointment over the ones you didn’t get.
I think “being rather than seeming” means finding work that nourishes your soul, not your ego. It means that you’re so committed to your work, whatever it is, that you want to do it even if you never receive any recognition for it. That’s where you find true satisfaction.
I actually don’t happen to walk past the pillar much in my day to day movement around campus lately, but I like knowing it’s there. This place, with you, is where I do work that nourishes my soul, and it’s good to know there’s a solid stone marker nearby reminding me to keep it real.