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Kurt Vonnegut on Reading, Boredom, Belonging, and Our Human Responsibility

“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”

What makes the commencement address such a singular pinnacle of the communication arts is that, in an era where religion is increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought, it offers a secular version of the sermon — a packet of guidance on how to be a good human being and lead a good life. It is also one of the few cultural contexts in which a patronizing attitude, in the original sense of the term, is not only acceptable but desired — after all, the very notion of the graduation speech calls for a patronly father figure or matronly mother figure to get up at the podium and impart to young people hard-earned, experience-tested wisdom on how to live well. And implicit to that is an automatic disarmament of our otherwise unflinching culturally conditioned cynicism — which is also why the best commencement addresses are timeless and ageless and sing to us beyond the boundaries of our own life-stage. They supply even us cynical moderns with something true, something soul-affirming, something we can hang our beliefs on in a non-ironic way.

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) — a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, modern sage, poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad — endures as one of the most prolific and sought-after commencement speakers of all time. Nine of his finest commencement addresses, along with some of Vonnegut’s own drawings, are collected in the wonderful compendium If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library), which also gave us Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers.

In one of the best speeches in the collection, Vonnegut addresses the graduating class at Fredonia College in New York on May 20, 1978. He begins, Patti-Smith-style, with a silly and seemingly mundane piece of advice that he uses as a springboard for a deeper reflection:

I suppose you will all want money and true love, among other things. I will tell you how to make money: work very hard. I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time. Learn the words to all the latest songs.

What other advice can I give you? Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: “Never stick anything in your ear.” The tiniest bones in your body are inside your ears, you know — and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They’re fine, just the way they are.

Don’t murder anybody — even though New York State does not use the death penalty.

That’s about it.

But that, of course, isn’t it, as Vonnegut is no mere goof. Speaking the same year that Susan Sontag bemoaned how false polarities limit us, Vonnegut cracks open the heart of his message:

I am being so silly because I pity you so much. I pity all of us so much. Life is going to be very tough again, just as soon as this is over. And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.

He extends this notion of our shared humanity by poking gentle fun at our sense of entitlement, uniformly exerted despite the different particularities on which it is pegged:

We are all experiencing more or less the same lifetime now.

What is it the slightly older people want from the slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that.

What is it the slightly younger people want from the slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.

Above all, however, Vonnegut congratulates graduates for having blossomed into “Clarks,” named after “inhabitants of the British Isles who were remarkable for being able to read and write.” Twenty years before urging young women not to give up on books, Vonnegut celebrates the monumental gift of recorded thought:

You have spent most of the past sixteen or more years learning to read and write. People who can do those things well, as you can, are miracles and, in my opinion, entitle us to suspect that we may be civilized after all. It is terribly hard to learn to read and write. It takes simply forever. When we scold our schoolteachers about the low reading scores of their students, we pretend that it is the easiest thing in the world: to teach a person to read and write. Try it sometime, and you will discover that it is nearly impossible.

What good is being a Clark, now that we have computers and movies and television? Clarking, a wholly human enterprise, is sacred. Machinery is not. Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet, and far surpasses any dream experienced by a Hindu on a mountaintop. Why? Because Clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When Clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?

Vonnegut moves on to the question of boredom and belonging:

No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.

We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.

Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.

So 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.

(It’s hard not to wonder how Vonnegut might feel, if he were alive today — despite his unambiguous distaste for computers — about online communities and the relationships they sprout, which often spill into “offline” life.)

And yet, like Susan Sontag, he concedes that boredom is central to the human condition:

We are supposed to be bored. It is a part of life. Learn to put up with it, or you will not be what I have declared the members of this graduating class to be: mature women and men.

He leaves the graduates — members of a generation often criticized for being apathetic — with a meditation on the intoxicating poison of hate, which rings with double poignancy in our age of trolling and bullying:

As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

[…]

The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a treasure trove from cover to cover, full of Vonnegut’s expansive spirit and irreverent wit. Complement it with more excellent commencement addresses, including George Saunders on the power of kindness, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, 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.

BP

George Saunders on the Power of Kindness, Animated

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

In May of 2013, celebrated author and MacArthur “genius” George Saunders took the podium at Syracuse University and delivered a masterpiece of that singular modern package of bequeathable wisdom, the commencement address. A year later, his speech was adapted in Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (public library), delicately designed and hand-lettered by Chelsea Cardinal. It follows in the footsteps of other commencement-addresses-turned-books, such as Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, and the recent compendium of Kurt Vonnegut’s magnificent commencement addresses.

With his gentle wisdom and disarming warmth, Saunders manages to dissolve some of our most deeply engrained culturally conditioned cynicism into a soft and expansive awareness of the greatest gift one human being can give another — those sacred exchanges that take place in a moment of time, often mundane and fleeting, but echo across a lifetime with inextinguishable luminosity.

In this immeasurably wonderful animated teaser for the book, narrated by Saunders himself, illustrator Tim Bierbaum brings to life the author’s words:

I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

But kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Jack Kerouac on kindness, then revisit more of the greatest commencement addresses ever given: Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, and Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life.

BP

Patti Smith’s Advice on Life

How dental care protects our inner Pinocchio.

In May of 2010, beloved performer, poet, and renegade philosopher Patti Smith got up in front of the graduating class at Pratt and delivered a short and exquisite masterpiece of a special modern art form: the commencement address. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

She starts out with her characteristic fusion of wit and wisdom:

Now that I’m here, my greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health. And I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your muse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to help your fellow man — you don’t want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.

And then — boom! — the classic Patti Smith stealthy sagacity that slips in through the back door to deliver a powerful point. Recounting her early days in New York City — roaming the streets with her soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe, and being so poor that they frequently dined on the starving-artist staple of lettuce soup — Smith considers a profound human universality:

Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinocchio.

And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

On the question of finding one’s purpose, Smith recounts the advice William S. Burroughs memorably gave her, which she advocates for frequently:

What should we aspire to as we go on our road? When I was in my early twenties, I was lucky to have William Burroughs as a friend and mentor. Once I was with him and I asked him this question: “What should I aspire to?” and he thought, and he said: “My dear, a gold American Express would be good.” But after that, he said very thoughtfully, “Build your name.” And i said, “William, my name is Smith.” And he said, “Well, you’ll have to build a little harder.” But what William meant when he told me to build my name. Build a good name — because a name is not to get famous. He wasn’t talking about celebrity — he was talking about let your name radiate your self, magnify who you are, your good deeds, your code of honor. Build your name and as you go through life, your name will serve you.

She considers our most reliable anchors in life:

We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And when you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.

On the importance of our cultural roots and sense of belonging:

When you proceed on your course, never forget you are not alone. You have friends and family, but you also have you ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them. Their strength through the ages will come into you. And then there are your spiritual ancestors. Call on them. They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus, he said, “I am with you always, even into the end of the world,” Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman — they are with you. Choose the one you wish to walk with and he or she will walk with you. Don’t forget that you are not alone.

She ends by recounting the advice her father gave her, bringing it all back to the bigger point behind her seemingly silly dental care counsel:

When I left home, I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well-read — he read all the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked his advice, he told me one thing: Be happy. It’s all he said. So simple. I’m telling you, these simple things — taking care of your teeth, being happy — they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work.

Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your guide.

Complement with Dream of Life, the fantastic documentary about Smith, then revisit some excellent commencement addresses by Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett.

BP

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

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

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) 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.

BP

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