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(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his


Please answer the questions in the form of a short answer (6-7 sentences minimum) after reading the attached file.
(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure

 

going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a

 

handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's

 

graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they

 

happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says

 

"Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then

 

eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

 

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of

 

didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better,

 

less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present

 

myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please

 

don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most

 

obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

 

Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that

 

in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death

 

importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

 

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about

 

your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to

 

receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the

 

single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal

 

arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about

 

"teaching you how to think". If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing

 

this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach

 

you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems

 

like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the

 

liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant

 

education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the

 

capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total

 

freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time

 

discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few

 

minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

 

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in

 

the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and

 

the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes

 

after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual

 

reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the

 

whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below,

 

and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God,

 

I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar,

 

the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he

 

says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that

 

was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way

 

back to camp."

 

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same

 

experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those

 

people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning

 

from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our

 

liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the

 

other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just

 

where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come

 

from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world,

 

and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoesize; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct

 

meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the

 

whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of

 

the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help.

 

True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own

 

interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most

 

of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever:

 

blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the

 

prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

 

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really

 

supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness

 

about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be

 

automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this

 

the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

 

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically

 

sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am

 

the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in

 

existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's

 

so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting,

 

hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had

 

that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

 

And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you

 

somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

 

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or otherdirectedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my

 

choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired

 

default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret

 

everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting

 

this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an

 

accidental term.

 

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this

 

work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This

 

question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic

 

education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise

 

stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention

 

to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

 

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive,

 

instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be

 

happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to

 

understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually

 

shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means

 

learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being

 

conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how

 

you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of

 

choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind

 

being an excellent servant but a terrible master".

 

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a

 

great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide

 

with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible

 

master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they

 

pull the trigger.

 

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is

 

supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous,

 

respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default

 

setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may

 

sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you

 

graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in

 

commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty

 

frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking

 

about.

 

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go

 

to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or

 

ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want

 

is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the

 

sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But

 

then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week

 

because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and

 

drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very

 

bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get

 

there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all

 

the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store

 

is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty

 

much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to

 

wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and

 

you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people

 

with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and

 

eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough

 

check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is

 

incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out

 

on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium

 

and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious

 

college.

 

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and

 

you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then

 

you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one

 

crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded,

 

bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow,

 

heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

 

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates'

 

actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

 

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines

 

besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is

 

exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a

 

conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed

 

and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the

 

certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY

 

fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like

 

everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at

 

how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and

 

nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people

 

are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and

 

personally unfair this is.

 

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting,

 

I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid,

 

lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful,

 

selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious

 

bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles,

 

driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how

 

NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most

 

inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children

 

will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate,

 

and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern

 

consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

 

You get the idea.

 

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except

 

thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It

 

is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring,

 

frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic,

 

unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and

 

feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

 

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of

 

situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not

 

impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in

 

the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them

 

to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer

 

that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in

 

the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger,

 

more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the

 

supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of

 

these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

 

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are

 

supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it.

 

Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't

 

be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

 

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look

 

differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the

 

checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight

 

nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very

 

lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped

 

your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of

 

bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It

 

just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know

 

what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me,

 

probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you

 

really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will

 

actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type

 

situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the

 

stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

 

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is

 

that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

 

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted.

 

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide

 

what to worship.

 

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult

 

life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not

 

worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the

 

compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to

 

worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four

 

Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything

 

else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where

 

you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have

 

enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will

 

always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths

 

before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great

 

story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

 

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more

 

power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as

 

smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

 

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's

 

that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

 

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and

 

more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully

 

aware that that's what you're doing.

 

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default

 

settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily

 

along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our

 

own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary

 

wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skullsized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to

 

recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is

 

most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of

 

wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and

 

awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to

 

sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

 

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The

 

alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing

 

sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

 

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the

 

way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the

 

capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course,

 

free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some fingerwagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or

 

dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

 

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

 

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with

 

knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real

 

and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep

 

reminding ourselves over and over:

 

"This is water."

 

"This is water." It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in

 

and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education

 

really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

 

I wish you way more than luck.

 


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