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Posts Tagged ‘commencement’

17 APRIL, 2014

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to the Young on Kindness, Computers, Community, and the Power of Great Teachers

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“Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.”

Kurt Vonnegut was a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, a kind of modern sage and poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad. After the publication of his now-legendary 1969 satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut added another point of excellence to his résumé: He became one of the country’s most celebrated and sought-after commencement speakers, and like other masters of the genre — including Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett — he bestowed his gift of wit and wisdom upon throngs of eager young people entering the so-called “real world.”

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library) collects the graduation addresses the beloved writer delivered at nine different colleges over the quarter century between 1978 and 2004, among which are his poignant and heartening remarks to the women of the graduating class at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, delivered on May 15, 1999 — the speech from which this entire collection borrows its title.

With his signature self-deprecation, Vonnegut reflects on the gift of compassion and how we — as a civilization, a culture, and as individuals — have failed it:

I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?” What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too. Are you ready for this?

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody’s going to be really sorry.

Though Vonnegut described himself as a Humanist — a secular set of beliefs to which Isaac Asimov also subscribed as an alternative to religion — and even called himself an atheist in another commencement address, he points to the story of Jesus Christ not as a religious teaching but as a cultural narrative that bequeaths a valuable moral disposition:

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful.”

His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s “E = mc2.”

Vonnegut makes sure his disposition toward religion isn’t misunderstood and the religiosity of these tales doesn’t obscure his larger point:

I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.

But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge — forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago.

This disposition, Vonnegut argues, is a personal choice, an individual moral obligation, something to cultivate within ourselves — even it means going against the cultural current:

We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on…

But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same — so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone.

He then turns an optimistic eye toward the creative arts — the music, painting, literature, film, theater, and all the humane ideas that “make us feel honored to be members of the human race” — urging the graduating women to consider how they would contribute to that world and offering them a gender-appropriate revision of Robert Browning’s famous line, replacing his word “man,” an old-timey linguistic convention denoting a human being, with “woman”:

A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Vonnegut turns to the nature of human relationships and what he considers to be the only true source of friction for lovers, often mistaken for more superficial motives:

You should know that when a husband and wife fight, it may seem to be about money or sex or power.

But what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness. What they’re really saying is, “You’re not enough people.”

[…]

If you determine that that really is what they’ve been yelling at each other about, tell them to become more people for each other by joining a synthetic extended family — like the Hell’s Angels, perhaps, or the American Humanist Association, with headquarters in Amherst, New York — or the nearest church.

This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.” Such counsel seems, in hindsight, particularly at odds with something else he proclaimed when he stood before the women of Agnes Scott College that spring afternoon in 1999:

Computers are no more your friends, and no more increasers of your brainpower, than slot machines…

Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!

The latter, of course, is something only a man can say — but given what a warm-hearted and thoughtful man Vonnegut was, the safe and decent thing to do would be to attribute such a well-meaning but ignorant remark not to ill intent but to his all too deeply engrained Y chromosome, or more precisely to his having unwittingly swum with the current his whole life.

More importantly, however, it’s interesting to consider that Vonnegut — writing in 1999, before Facebook and Twitter and most current thriving online communities existed — so readily dismisses the connective potentiality of “computers” (and even advises those women who may want to pursue motherhood to “keep that kid the hell away from computers… unless you want it to be a lonesome imbecile”) while in the same breath urging us to seek out “a synthetic extended family.” He even admonishes: “Don’t try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet. Get yourself a Harley and join the Hell’s Angels instead.” One ought to wonder how Vonnegut might feel if he were alive today to witness many of these initially online-only “ghostly” connections blossom into deep and real relationships offline, the best of them of the lifelong kind.

A curmudgeonly celebrator at heart but a celebrator above all, Vonnegut then returns to his optimistic vision for these young women’s lives:

By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well-informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.

[…]

Most of you are preparing to enter fields unattractive to greedy persons, such as education and the healing arts. Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.

(A necessary aside here: If any of Vonnegut’s words to the young women appear patronizing, this is more a function of the genre than of the man: Lest we forget, the basic rhetoric of the commencement address is one where a patronly “father figure” (or a matronly “mother figure”) gets up in front of a green crop of young minds and proceeds to dispense wisdom on how to live — wisdom that comes from a hard-earned, know-better place of having lived it himself or herself. The very point of a commencement address, it’s safe to say, is to be willingly patronized.)

Vonnegut’s closing remarks are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gladdening celebration of books and reading:

Don’t give up on books. They feel so good — their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.

He concludes with a wonderful anecdote about his Uncle Alex, from which this entire collection borrows its title:

One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

And just to drive his point home in the most heartfelt way possible, Vonnegut ends with a soul-warming exercise:

That’s one favor I’ve asked of you. Now I ask for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? is a spectacular read in its entirety, brimming with Vonnegut’s unflinching convictions and timeless advice to the young. Complement it with more of history’s greatest commencement addresses, including Anna Quindlen on the essential ingredients of happiness, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, and Bill Watterson on not selling out.

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11 MARCH, 2014

A Short Guide to a Happy Life: Anna Quindlen on Work, Joy, and How to Live Rather Than Exist

By:

“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

The commencement address is a special kind of modern communication art, and its greatest masterpieces tend to either become a book — take, for instance, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life — or have originated from a book, such as Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life. One of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, however, has an unusual story that flies in the face of both traditional trajectories.

In 2000, Villanova University invited Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, journalist, and New York Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen to deliver the annual commencement address. But once the announcement was made, a group of conservative students staged a protest against Quindlen’s strong liberal views. The commencement was cancelled. “I don’t think you should have to walk through demonstrators to get to your college commencement,” Quindlen lamented. Rather than retreat, however, she emailed the undelivered commencement address to a Villanova graduate student who had expressed disappointment at the situation. Years before the social web as we know it today, the speech spread like wildfire across the internet. A few months later, Quindlen expanded it into the short and lovely book A Short Guide to a Happy Life (public library).

Anna Quindlen (artwork based on a photograph by Grant M. Haller)

Quindlen begins:

I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field… I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or academe, as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand. I’m a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.

And know it she does:

Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard that my father sent me last year: “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

Quindlen considers the question of the self and what makes us who we are, what makes us worthy of being. And while the great Annie Dillard may have cautioned to not “ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible,” it seems impossible to address the question of what makes a meaningful life without addressing the human soul, which Quindlen does beautifully:

There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.

People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Even those trying to find their purpose, even those engaged in fulfilling work, and even those of us lucky enough to have no separation between “life” and “work,” can get consumed by our modern cult of productivity. Quindlen’s words come as a vital reminder of what matters, what counts, what the true aliveness of life is:

You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.

So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.

Here, Annie Dillard, who so memorably expounded the power of presence over productivity in the making of a rich life, would have agreed. For Quindlen, however, an even richer life than that of simply being present is one of being present with a palpable generosity of spirit towards the world:

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Quindlen, who had a jarring confrontation with the mortality paradox early in life — at nineteen, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer and spent her sophomore year of college administering morphine while her peers partied — considers the Alan Wattsian idea that putting at rest our resistance to the inevitability of death liberates us to be more alive. (Sarah Lewis put this beautifully when she observed, “When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.”) Quindlen reflects on the tragedy that split her life into a “before” and an “after”:

It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking.

[…]

“Before” and “after” for me was not just before my mother’s illness and after her death. It was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came on, for the darkest possible reason.

And I went back to school and I looked around at all the kids I knew who found it kind of a drag and who weren’t sure if they could really hack it and who thought life was a bummer. And I knew that I had undergone a sea change. Because I was never again going to be able to see life as anything except a great gift.

Watercolor by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

“We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” philosopher Roman Krznaric wrote in his fantastic manifesto for finding meaningful work, but Quindlen reminds us that the luxury of seeking fulfillment rather than mere survival came at a price — and yet how easily we take it for granted:

It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is. We have more time than ever before to remember it. The men and women of generations past had to work long, long hours to support lots and lots of children in tiny, tiny houses. The women worked in factories and sweatshops and then at home, too, with two bosses, the one who paid them, and the one they were married to, who didn’t. . . . Our jobs take too much out of us and don’t pay enough.

She continues:

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.

[…]

This is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.

Photograph by Myron Davis for 'The Meaning of Life.' Click image for more.

How, then, are we to fully inhabit the miracle of our existence, that cosmic accident by the grace of which we ended up alive, here, now? Quindlen offers a gateway to presence:

Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.

A Short Guide to a Happy Life is the kind of read that stays with you for a long time, the sort you revisit again and again when the ground beneath your feet shakes and you reach for a reminder of the solid center. Complement it with more fantastic commencement addresses by Bill Watterson, Joss Whedon, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jacqueline Novogratz, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos

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18 DECEMBER, 2013

December 18, 1988: Joseph Brodsky Gives the Greatest Commencement Address of All Time

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“Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”

The exquisite commencement address is a special kind of art, necessitating in equal parts the vulnerability of sharing personal experience and the challenge of extracting from it wisdom of universal resonance. Among history’s most memorable are Neil Gaiman on making good art, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Judith Butler on the value of reading and the humanities, Oprah on failure and finding your purpose, Greil Marcus on the essence of art, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and more fantastic speeches by Ann Patchett, Jacqueline Novogratz, David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos. But one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre came long before this art-form was a marketable “genre.”

On December 18, 1988, twenty-five years after his writing had been denounced as “anti-Soviet” in his native Russia and mere months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity,” prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky took the podium at Ann Arbor and addressed the graduating class at the University of Michigan with one of the most beautiful and timeless commencement speeches ever given, offering six invaluable pieces of wisdom on good-personhood and the meaning of life. It lay dormant for nearly a decade, considered too provocative for publication, until it was finally transcribed and included in the 1997 anthology On Grief and Reason: Essays (public library) under the title “Speech at the Stadium.”

Brodsky begins:

Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.

After reminiscing about his own college days, Brodsky offers:

I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone.

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. … But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modern system of education or at you, its alleged victims.To begin with, I don’t perceive you as such. After all, in certain fields your knowledge is immeasurably superior to mine or anyone’s of my generation. I regard you as a bunch of young, reasonably egotistical souls on the eve of a very long journey. I shudder to contemplate its length, and I ask myself in what way I could possibly be of use to you. Do I know something about life that could be of help or consequence to you, and if I do, is there a way to pass this information on to you?

The answer to the first question is, I suppose, yes — not so much because a person of my age is entitled to out-fox any of you at existential chess as because he is, in all probability, tired of quite a lot of the stuff you are still aspiring to. (This fatigue alone is something the young should be advised on as an attendant feature of both their eventual success and their failure; this sort of knowledge may enhance their savoring of the former as well as a better weathering of the latter.) As for the second question, I truly wonder. The example of the aforementioned commandments may discourage any commencement speaker, for the Ten Commandments themselves were a commencement address — literally so, I must say. But there is a transparent wall between the generations, an ironic curtain, if you will, a see-through veil allowing almost no passage of experience. At best, some tips.

He goes on to offer six such existential tips:

  1. Now and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.
  2. Now and in the time to be, try to be kind to your parents. If this sounds too close to “Honor thy mother and father” for your comfort, so be it. All I am trying to say is try not to rebel against them, for, in all likelihood, they will die before you do, so you can spare yourselves at least this source of guilt if not of grief. If you must rebel, rebel against those who are not so easily hurt. Parents are too close a target (so, by the way, are sisters, brothers, wives or husbands); the range is such that you can’t miss. Rebellion against one’s parents, for all its I-won’t-take-a-single-penny-from-you, is essentially an extremely bourgeois sort of thing, because it provides the rebel with the ultimate in comfort, in this case, mental comfort: the comfort of one’s convictions. The later you hit this pattern, the later you become a mental bourgeois, i.e., the longer you stay skeptical, doubtful, intellectually uncomfortable, the better it is for you.

    On the other hand, of course, this not-a-single-penny business makes practical sense, because your parents, in all likelihood, will bequeath all they’ve got to you, and the successful rebel will end up with the entire fortune intact — in other words, rebellion is a very efficient form of savings. The interest, though, is crippling; I’d say, bankrupting.

  3. Try not to set too much store by politicians — not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of their job, which is too big even for the best among them, by this or that political party, doctrine, system or a blueprint thereof. All they or those can do, at best, is to diminish a social evil, not eradicate it. No matter how substantial an improvement may be, ethically speaking it will always be negligible, because there will always be those — say, just one person — who won’t profit from this improvement. The world is not perfect; the Golden Age never was or will be. The only thing that’s going to happen to the world is that it will get bigger, i.e., more populated while not growing in size. No matter how fairly the man you’ve elected will promise to cut the pie, it won’t grow in size; as a matter of fact, the portions are bound to get smaller. In light of that, or, rather, in dark of that — you ought to rely on your own home cooking, that is, on managing the world yourselves — at least that part of it that lies within your reach, within your radius. Yet in doing this, you must also prepare yourselves for the heart-rending realization that even that pie of yours won’t suffice; you must prepare yourselves that you’re likely to dine as much in disappointment as in gratitude. The most difficult lesson to learn here is to be steady in the kitchen, since by serving this pie just once you create quite a lot of expectations. Ask yourself whether you can afford a steady supply of those pies, or would you rather bargain on a politician? Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching may be — however much you think the world can bet on your baking — you might start right away by insisting that those corporations, banks, schools, labs and whatnot where you’ll be working, and whose premises are heated and policed round the clock anyway, permit the homeless in for the night, now that it’s winter.
  4. Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be one at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous. On the whole, there is always something faintly unpalatable about being better off than one’s likes, and when those likes come in billions, it is more so. To this it should be added that the rich and famous these days, too, come in throngs, that up there on the top it’s very crowded. So if you want to get rich or famous or both, by all means go ahead, but don’t make a meal of it. To covet what somebody else has is to forfeit your uniqueness; on the other hand, of course, it stimulates mass production. But as you are running through life only once, it is only sensible to try to avoid the most obvious cliches, limited editions included. The notion of exclusivity, mind you, also forfeits your uniqueness, not to mention that it shrinks your sense of reality to the already-achieved. Far better than belonging to any club is to be jostled by the multitudes of those who, given their income and their appearance, represent — at least theoretically — unlimited potential. Try to be more like them than like those who are not like them; try to wear gray. Mimicry is the defense of individuality, not its surrender. I would advise you to lower your voice, too, but I am afraid you will think I am going too far. Still, keep in mind that there is always somebody next to you, a neighbor. Nobody asks you to love him, but try not to hurt or discomfort him much; try to tread on his toes carefully; and should you come to covet his wife, remember at least that this testifies to the failure of your imagination, to your disbelief in — or ignorance of — reality’s unlimited potential. Worse comes to worst, try to remember how far away — from the stars, from the depths of the universe, perhaps from its opposite end — came this request not to do it, as well as this idea of loving your neighbor no less than yourself. Maybe the stars know more about gravity, as well as about loneliness, than you do; coveting eyes that they are.
  5. At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blaine-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, a victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim-culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it — but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No.” On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.
  6. The world you are about to enter and exist in doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s been better geographically than historically; it’s still far more attractive visually than socially. It’s not a nice place, as you are soon to find out, and I rather doubt that it will get much nicer by the time you leave it. Still, it’s the only world available; no alternative exists, and if one did, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one. It is a jungle out there, as well as a desert, a slippery slope, a swamp, etc. — literally — but, what’s worse, metaphorically, too. Yet, as Robert Frost has said, “The best way out is always through.” He also said, in a different poem, though, that “to be social is to be forgiving.” It’s with a few remarks about this business of getting through that I would like to close.

    Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. There will be a lot of those — in the official capacity as well as the self-appointed. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible. Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists; most likely they are counting on your being talkative and relating your experience to others. By himself, no individual is worth an exercise in injustice (or for that matter, in justice). The ratio of one-to-one doesn’t justify the effort: it’s the echo that counts. That’s the main principle of any oppressor, whether state-sponsored or autodidact. Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur.

    What your foes do derives its significance or consequence from the way you react. Therefore, rush through or past them as though they were yellow and not red lights. Don’t linger on them mentally or verbally; don’t pride yourself on forgiving or forgetting them — worse come to worse, do the forgetting first. This way you’ll spare your brain cells a lot of useless agitation; this way, perhaps, you may even save those pigheads from themselves, since the prospect of being forgotten is shorter than that of being forgiven. So flip the channel: you can’t put this network out of circulation, but at least you can reduce its ratings. Now, this solution is not likely to please angels, but, then again, it’s bound to hurt demons, and for the moment that’s all that really matters.

He concludes by putting things — the things we so readily and habitually take for granted — in perspective:

I can’t divine your future, but it’s pretty obvious to any naked eye that you have a lot going for you. To say the least, you were born, which is in itself half the battle, and you live in a democracy — this halfway house between nightmare and utopia — which throws fewer obstacles in the way of an individual than its alternatives.

The complete speech, as well as more of Brodsky’s wisdom on everything from exile to cats to how to read a book, can be found in the timelessly excellent On Grief and Reason.

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