Friday, May 21, 2010

Alan Alda's Commencement Address

The United States is currently enjoying that time of the year known as commencement season, when colleges and universities all over the country are sending their students out into the world and speakers from all walks of life are invited to offer their best advice to the graduates. Many of us have have sat through dozens of commencement speeches that were ordinary, perfunctory, and unremarkable. Every now and then, though, a graduation speech holds our attention and even changes how we see the world. Such speeches are rare, to be sure, but when they come along, they should be appreciated and savored and re-experienced again and again. So here's just part of a really good one by Alan Alda from 1980. Even as a part, it's bit long, so the second part will be tomorrow. Enjoy.

"I want to tell you to be as smart as you can but to try to remember that it's always better to be wise than to be smart. And don't be upset that it takes a long, long time to find wisdom because nobody knows where wisdom can be found. It tends to break out at unexpected times like a rare virus and mostly people with compassion and understanding are susceptible to it.

The door is inching a little closer toward the latch and I still haven't said it. You'll be gone and I won't have found the words. Let me dig a little deeper.

Let me go back to when I was in college. There were words that had power for me then; maybe they will for you now.

I had forgotten how much this idea meant to me, how much I wrote about it and thought about it. It was the essence of a philosophy that was very popular at the time and it's one of the most helpful and cheerful ideas I've ever heard.

It's this: Life is absurd and meaningless and full of nothingness. Possibly this doesn't strike you as helpful and cheerful, but I think it is, because it's honest and because it goads you on.

I had a teacher in those days who saw me with a book by Jean Paul Sartre under my arm and he said to me, "Be careful, if you read too much of that you'll start walking around dressed in black, looking wan, doing nothing for the rest of your life." Well, I read the book anyway and as it turned out, I'm tanned and lovely, I'm rich and productive and I'm happy like nobody's business.

Maybe it was my natural optimism at work, but what I saw and warmed to in the existentialist writings was that life is meaningless unless you bring meaning to it; that it is up to us to create our own existence. Unless you do something, unless you make something it's as though you aren't there.

I was very taken at the time by a Catholic existentialist called Gabriel Marcel who spoke about fidelity as essential to existence. Fidelity had a special meaning for him. It meant presence, being there with the people around you. None of this seemed dour to me. Existentialism was supposed to be the philosophy of despair. But not to me, because it faced the cold hard stone you hit when you touch rock bottom and I saw in it a way to bound back up again. No matter how loving or loved we are, it eventually occurs to most of us that deep, deep down inside there, we're all alone. I'm not telling you this to depress you or to turn your eyes away from the soft flutter of blossoms on a day in spring. But I know that winter's coming and when the moment comes for you to wrestle with that cold loneliness which is every person's private monster, I want you to face the damn thing. I want you to see it for what it is and win.

This spring is the fulfillment of an era in a way. It was news back then when people declared God to be dead, but now Sartre is dead; and in a curious way so is the optimism that spawned his pessimism. The distressing reality is that 25 years ago when I was in college we all talked about nothingness but moved into a world of effort and endeavor. Now no one much talks about nothingness, but the world itself, the one you will move into, is filled with it.

You may not feel it right now, not on a day like this. Maybe it's something that strikes you, not when you graduate college, but only when your child does. But whenever that sense of absurdity hits you, I want you to be ready. It will have a hard time getting hold of you if you're already in motion. You can learn the skills of your profession. You can use those skills and others you have learned here and you can dig into the world and push it into better shape."

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