Just down the hall from my office, hanging on the wall, is a painting of Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” I pass by this painting many times a day, but often I am rushing past. I am trying to get to class or chapel on time, or trying to connect with a student or teacher.
When I do take the time to stop and consider the import of these words, the clean and clear direction of this verse, I find I am drawn specifically to the idea of excellence. It is a broad concept, not easily nailed down for me personally, for the school where I work, or for the students that I serve. Though I believe as well in being noble and in trying to be right and pure, excellence feels more aspirational to me, like something to be pursued no matter what has previously been accomplished.
My understanding of excellence has been formed by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who argued, “in character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” Longfellow reminds me that excellence is not always gained through the most complicated path. And it is not so big a concept, it is not so high a peak that it cannot be scaled. A vision of achieving excellence can be boiled down to just taking a step. The first man to reach the peak of Everest summed it up succinctly, simply if you will, “it is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
A school of excellence can be one where our constituents choose love over hate. It can be one where our constituents choose effort over passivity. It can be one where our constituents choose relationship over isolation. It can be one where our constituents choose joy over discord. These things are simple, because they are represented by a smile, by an understanding word, by an act of comfort, by a few more minutes spent on a problem, by celebrating our successes, both individually and collectively.
In that sense, the pursuit of excellence (and for that matter - nobility, purity, beauty, love and all) is in fact not impossible or daunting beyond what we conceive. We just need to conceive of it as movement, we have to see it in a kinetic way. The real simplicity is in courage, in the strength of our character to choose to pursue excellence in the face of adversity, in the face of the possibility of failure or judgment, by simply taking a step in the right direction. And if we do fail, to regroup and take the first step again.