Saturday, May 22, 2010

Alan Alda's Commencement Address Part 2

Here is the continuation of Alan Alda's commencement address from 1980:

"For one thing, you can clean the air and water. Some people feel that lead poisoning was a major cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, because the ruling class had their food cooked in expensive pots that were lined with lead. They didn't know any better, but we don't have that excuse. Now almost 2,000 years later a number of American companies have hit upon the incredibly clever idea of getting rid of their industrial waste by putting it into our food. Not directly of course; that would be too expensive. First they put it in the ground, then it goes into the water, and the next thing you know you're eating a sludgeburger. You can do something about that.

Or you can try to make the justice system work. You can bring the day a little closer when the rich and privileged have to live by the same standards as the poor and the outcast.

Or you can try to put an end to organized crime, that happy family whose main objective is to convince us they don't exist while they destroy a whole generation with drugs and suck the life from our economy.

Or you can step gingerly in the path of the lumbering behemoth of nuclear power. And you can ask the simple question: What ever happened to the principle of no radiation without representation?

Or you can keep the tiger of war away from our gates for a while longer. You can do what you can to keep old men from sending children away to die. They're tuning up for the song of war now. They're making preparations and trial excursions. They're tickling our anger. They're asking us if we're ready to pour the cream of our youth out onto the ground where it will seep into the earth and disappear forever. Tell them we're not. The time to stop the next war is now - before it starts.

If you want to take absurdity by the neck and shake it till its brains rattle, you can try to find out how it is that people can see one another as less than human. How people can be capable of both nurture and torture. How we can worry and fret about a little girl caught in a mine shaft, spending days and nights getting her out but then burn a village to the ground and destroy all its people with hardly the blink of an eye. When the new draft was proposed a few months ago, some kids raised signs that said, "Nothing is worth dying for." I don't agree. I don't feel that nothing is worth dying for, but since I was very young I questioned if anything is worth killing for. If you're interested, you can question that, too, and you can try to find out why people all over the world, of every country, of every class, of every religion have, at one time or another, found it so easy, for reasons large and small, to use other people, to make them suffer and to just plain do away with them.

And while you're doing all of that, there's something else you can do. You can pass on the torch that's been carried from Seneca Falls. Remember that every right you have as a woman was won for you by women fighting hard. Everything else you have is a privilege, not a right. A privilege is given and taken away at the pleasure of those in power. There are little girls being born right now who won't even have the same rights you do when they grow up unless you do something to maintain them and extend the range of equality for women. The soup of civilized life is a nourishing stew but it doesn't keep bubbling on its own. Put something back in the pot as you leave for the people in line behind you.

There are, of course, hundreds of things you can work on, and they're all fairly impossible to achieve, so there's plenty to keep you busy for the rest of your life. I can't promise you this will ever completely reduce that sense of absurdity, but it may get it down to a manageable level. It will allow you once in awhile to take a glorious vacation from nothingness and bask in the feeling that, all in all, things do seem to be moving forward.

I can see your brow knitting in that way that I love. That crinkle between your eyebrows that signals your doubt and your skepticism just as it does on the forehead of your mother and your Grandpa Simon. The genetic code is signaling your doubt to me right now. Why, on a day of such excitement and hope, should I be talking of nothingness and decay? Because I want you to focus that hope and level that excitement into coherent rays that will strike like a laser at the targets of our discontent.

I want you to be potent, to do good when you can, and to hold your wit and your intelligence like a shield against other people's wantonness. And above all, to laugh and enjoy yourself in a life of your own choosing and in a world of your own making. I want you to be strong and aggressive and tough and resilient and full of feeling. I want you to be everything that's you, deep at the center of your being.

I want you to have chutzpah.

Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Don't ever aim your doubt at yourself. Laugh at yourself, but don't doubt yourself. Whenever you wonder about yourself, look up at the stars swirling around in the heavens and just realize how tiny and puny they are. They're supposed to be gigantic explosions and they're just these insignificant little dots. If you step back from things far enough, you realize how important and powerful you are.

Be bold. Let the strength of your desire give force and moment to your every step. Move with all of yourself. When you embark for strange places don't leave any of yourself safely on shore. They may laugh at you if you don't discover India. Let them laugh. India's already there. You'll come back with a brand new America. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. It is not the previously known. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can't get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you're doing, but what you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself.

Well, those are my parting words as today's door closes softly between us. There will be other partings and other last words in our lives so if today's lingering at the threshold didn't quite speak the unspeakable, maybe the next one will.

I'll let you go now

So long, be happy.

Oh, by the way, I love you.

1 comment:

  1. Turns out Alda is pretty good at this sort of thing. Here's another example from 2002...