It’s rare that a commencement address makes news. This annual speech given by one notable or another to the graduating class of an American college or high school is usually in the blandly uplifting vein (you-young-people-are-a-whole-new-future, our-hopes-are-in-you, as-you-go-out-into-this-great-wide-world blah blah blah). Students fidget and check their phones, parents nod and beam proudly, and everyone comes away satisfied that a ritual has been duly observed. So when Roosevelt High School in Seattle asked writer David Guterson to give their commencement speech this past June, they apparently expected more of the same.
They didn’t get it.
What they got was what anyone who has read Guterson would hope for. His best-known novel is probably his first, Snow Falling on Cedars, but my favorites are Our Lady Of The Forest and The Other. These are all hauntingly beautiful and deeply serious works of art, books that go deep into the terms on which we exist both on this earth and in this society.
The terms of our existence? In a commencement speech? A call to engage honestly and fiercely with the whole question of happiness? And with the reality of — gasp! — death? Some parents heckled and booed, and tried to cut the speech short. Later, they complained that it was “gloomy” and “negative.” Too real, it seems.
Interestingly — and far more to the point — students did not heckle or boo. They listened. Many with gratitude. Because here was someone actually talking directly to them, to where they were at. Knute Berger, the editor of Crosscut, thought the same, posting a “defense of David Guterson.” But read the speech for yourself, and see what you think:
Thank you. And thank you to the organizers of this event for giving me the opportunity to speak. I don’t take it lightly. Life’s short, and we don’t often have the chance to share what we think and feel is most important. This, for me, is exactly that chance, and I don’t want to waste it by talking to you casually. Right now, I have 15 minutes, and after that I will leave this podium, and it might be the case that never again will I have the microphone at a ceremony like this one, where it’s perfectly acceptable for me to offer up my take on things–where it’s even expected that I’ll offer my take on things. That take on things, most of the time, remains private, which is how it should be. You have your own–everyone here has their own vision of life. But right now I’ve been invited to share mine, and I’d like to do that with everyone here–not just with the graduating seniors but with their parents and siblings, their friends and relatives, their teachers, the administrators on hand tonight, to anyone in reach who cares to listen.
And what I want to talk about, as specifically and straightforwardly as possible, is happiness–happiness as something elusive on the one hand, and central to our concerns as human beings on the other. At every moment of our waking lives, we’re either in pursuit of happiness or enjoying its presence. When we feel unhappy, we want to change that, and when we feel happy, we want that to continue. At this very moment you are somewhere on the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness. If you are bored or uncomfortable, if your unhappiness takes those forms, you want things to change in the direction of less boredom and more comfort–in other words, in the direction of more happiness. If you’re enjoying this moment and finding it entirely pleasant, you don’t need things to change. Life, quite relentlessly, is of this nature, and all of us pass it, from moment to moment, either addressing our unhappiness or enjoying our happiness. All of us get considerable amounts of both, no matter what we do, but some people get more of one or the other, and I submit to you that you yourself have much to say about the amount of each in your life. In fact, no one, and nothing, has more to say about it than you.
I have an absolutely clear memory of being 18 and graduating from Roosevelt High School. I remember that many things made me feel happy, and that I pursued those things with vigor, but I also remember that I dreaded adulthood, and even more, old age and death, and that no matter what I was doing, no matter how good were the good times, somewhere at the bottom–underneath the music and the friends, the late nights and the fun–somewhere at the bottom there was always an awareness that this wasn’t going to last forever, and that I would have to get old like everyone else, which might not be so fun, and that one day, I would die, which wouldn’t be fun, either. Sometimes I would go for long periods without thinking about this, but then it would come to me again, the reality of my aging and death, an awareness of this while I was having so much fun, and the way I dealt with it was by telling myself that old age and death were way off in the future, that I had a lot of time, that I would deal with it later. Or I denied it. I told myself that, somehow, my own aging and death weren’t possible. I remember thinking, in 1974, that the year 2016, when I would turn 60, would somehow never come, that it just couldn’t happen, something would change before that date, and yet now it’s just 3 years away.
Is all of this familiar? Or was I just an inordinately morbid 18 year old? I think the literature I taught when I was a high school English teacher is pretty clear on this, because distress about mortality is there, pervasively, in the poems, plays, novels, and stories human beings have produced–they tell us in no uncertain terms that death is a big problem for a lot of us, and that the reality of our own death makes it very, very hard for us to feel 100% happy 100% of the time, which is how we would like to feel, and how we wish life was. In fact, we’re bothered by the fact that this universe we didn’t invent or choose to live in has to be like this. Why couldn’t it be otherwise? Why isn’t reality better than it is? If there’s a God, how come He or She includes death in His or Her Creation–not to mention suffering and pain, and suffering and pain of such intensity and persistence that it seems impossible that there is indeed a Creator who is all powerful and all good? Because if the Creator of the universe is all powerful and all good, why do bad things not just happen but happen to everybody? And why is it that the ultimate bad thing, our annihilation as individuals, also happens to everybody? What kind of a God creates such a reality? Not one who is all powerful and all good, as far as we, in our limited, human way, construe those terms. Which turns a lot of us into unbelievers, quite naturally. But then what? Now what? We find ourselves afraid of the universe, because it is either the work of a God who seems inexplicable at best and malicious at worst or a place completely indifferent to us, when all we want, as I said before, is to be happy. Why does that have to be so complicated, this happiness we seek? Why does the universe seem to be a place where happiness isn’t possible? We don’t have answers. And so, from day to day we just stumble on through life, aware that it is, in its very nature, unsatisfactory, and experiencing, privately, a sense of dissatisfaction with it, and mostly at a loss regarding what to do about it. In this profoundly confused way, our lives pass, and then they end.
If you are troubled by all of this, and would rather not be asked to think about it right now, well, welcome to the human race. On the other hand, be glad, because if you’re troubled right now, than at least at this moment you’re no longer kidding yourself. For just this moment you aren’t saying to yourself, “I’ll deal with it later; right now, things are good.” Instead of kidding yourself that way, you’re looking directly at the central problem life presents, which can’t be addressed as long as you’re fleeing from it. So if you’re distressed right now by all of this talk about death and God and the universe, be glad that you’re able to feel this distress, because without it, you’d have no hope for happiness. Your distress, your dissatisfaction, is the starting place, and the earlier you acknowledge and accept it, the better. In fact, this early start is critical, because if you wait, you will only continue on the path of deepening your strategies of avoidance, and that will make it harder. So start now, if you are 18 or 80. Start today.
What do I mean by strategies of avoidance? That’s a plural–strategies of avoidance–so let me start by describing just one, a common one in our place and time. This strategy hinges on willful distraction. We wake up, remember who we are, remember where we are, recall that life is not entirely satisfactory, and then we turn on our various hand-held devices to see what is going on in the world and who is communicating with us, and when those plentiful sources of distraction are temporarily exhausted we listen to music, and when the music doesn’t entirely satisfy we play a game on our hand-held devices while listening to different music, or we read while we eat, or while going to the bathroom, or while riding on the bus, and again we have the sensation that something is wrong, that things are not entirely satisfactory, we lack 100% happiness, and so we text somebody, or look at pictures of people on Facebook, or remember that there is something we would like to buy that could use a little research, and then, when the bus stops, a person sexually attractive to us gets on and sits down, and we look up and distract ourselves from the basic problem of life by admiring them for a while, some of us getting carried away with all kinds of thoughts about that person that have nothing to do with who they are in actuality, and after a while that fades, too, and we go on to the next thing, which might be, before we look down again at the screen of our hand-held device, a visual sweep across the landscape of our fellow bus riders while indulging in a stream of critical thoughts about them, that the person there is ugly, or that the person there is obviously an idiot because if he wasn’t he wouldn’t wear what he is wearing or carry the kind of backpack he is carrying, at which point the bus is passed in the adjacent lane by a car and you turn your attention to that, you peer out the window into the car because there are 4 fellow students in it on their way to school and one of them is somebody you don’t like very much, a cheater and a jerk, and then it’s time to look at your hand-held device again, and now an hour has passed since you woke up and only once or twice, in small, unasked for lulls, were you undistracted enough to know what you were actually doing or thinking and to exercise some control over it. For years and years you’ve done this until it has become, simply, the way your brain works. The neural pathways of judgment and impatience and boredom and dissatisfaction have become deep grooves, until this manner of experiencing the world and life seems to be the only possible way. But it is, in fact, not the only way. It is instead something you have learned to do, something that with time has become so familiar to you that you may be as unaware of it as you are of your own breathing.
Many of you, young and old, are recreational marijuana users. But regarding you graduates: statistics show that about half of people your age use marijuana more than 100 times per year. In our part of the United States the rate is even higher, and in schools like Roosevelt, with a large upper middle class demographic, the rate is higher still. I say this because I think recreational marijuana use is related to the point I’m making. You become dissatisfied with the ordinary, common, familiar, and normal processes of your own mind and use marijuana in order to get away from them. You smoke, and after that your mind works differently, and it is like a respite or vacation from your ordinary mind, an interlude in which you experience the world and life and your own mind in a more satisfying way. But then, eventually, the trip is over, and you come back to your ordinary way of thinking and to the normal world, which is so boring and unsatisfactory that you feel an urge to get high again, all the while knowing that this marijuana smoking is a crutch, a little vacation or a holiday, but not really the answer to the problem of life–really, in the end, just another distraction. Some people do this with alcohol, or by taking literal vacations to places like Hawaii or Mexico, or by combining all 3, marijuana, alcohol, and a sunny beach, or by engaging in recreational activities like skiing or kayaking–all of it with a view toward experiencing life in a way more satisfying than it normally feels, and all of it undertaken with the sinking feeling that even these activities don’t really solve the problem. They’re also just distractions, like everything else, brief respites from dissatisfaction, and they don’t address the fact that by and large we are not at peace, not satisfied, and not happy.
I mentioned earlier that young people sometimes deal with this problem by having as much fun as they can now while telling themselves that distressing existential dilemmas can come later. I want to warn you that this is a recipe for disaster. The fun you are having now turns out to be not so much a temporary stay against life and death, or a delaying tactic, but a response to life and death that gradually and relentlessly tightens its grip on you, and becomes a habit, even an addiction. I also want to warn you about something else–that the society you find yourself in isn’t going to help you. It isn’t designed to help you. It isn’t a society with a spiritual or philosophical basis designed to assist you in your aspiration toward happiness. It is, in fact, designed to do the opposite. First, it teaches you that you are the most important thing in the world, and does it so well and thoroughly that you don’t even notice. This is there in the the so-called “Enlightenment” philosophy that is the underpinning of modern Western life and in our political principles and political documents–that the individual, with his or her personal goals, hopes, dreams, and aspirations, is primary and foremost. From these philosophical and political roots, the primacy of the individual has grown and spread to subsume nearly everything, and that, in the end, has not brought us happiness, because the you that matters so much every second of every day is in fact mortal and even ephemeral, and you know this, and isn’t it sad, even tragic, to know that in the end all of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations don’t amount to much, that they take you nowhere, and that this constant obsession with them is really just another form of unhappiness. To put this another way, if my life is first and foremost about me, I will never be happy.
We have another big problem when it comes to happiness in our society. While each of us is relentlessly busy chasing after his or her personal hopes and dreams, our very sophisticated modern economy is busily exploiting the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities elicited by this state of affairs. It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life. It knows that you are insecure about your appearance, for example, and in advertising it does everything it can to make you feel even worse about it, because if you feel worse about it, you will buy expensive clothing or pay a doctor to change your face. So in our society, not only do you have to be unhappy on that existential level that is just part and parcel of being human, you also have to be unhappy in ways designed for you by others, and if you are a woman or gay or a person of color, your society will make it even harder for you by tilting the playing field so you have to walk uphill, and by confounding your inner life in ways white men don’t have to face. Add to this your natural anxiety about the future–your distress about what it means that we are developing smart drones and melting the polar ice cap–and happiness begins to feel, for a lot of us, impossible. So impossible that the rate of mental illness in America, of depression in particular, is higher that it has ever been. The world might seem full of possibility, and it is that way, but it is also a place where you can very quickly find yourself among the living dead–a being without the means for happiness.
Here is something you can do about it–or something you can do to get started. Take whatever handheld device you own out of your pocket or bag and set the alarm for 2 hours for now. When it makes whatever noise you have selected for it to make, ask yourself how often during the last 2 hours you were actually in charge of your thoughts. How often was your mind just rolling along like a pack of drunken monkeys, doing whatever it wants without you having anything to say about it? How often was it busy being bored, dissatisfied, critical of others, self-absorbed, insecure, self-hating, anxious, and/or afraid? How often were you genuinely happy? And exactly at the moment your alarm makes its noise, where was your mind and what was it doing? Because in the end your mind is the one thing you have going for you when it comes to happiness. A deliberate mind, a mind that works consciously–choosing, at every turn, what you are saying, what you are doing, and what you are thinking–this is very, very hard to achieve, which is why you should start now. Cultivate those states of mind that actually produce happiness and cast out those that don’t. After a while you will find that you care much less about your own hopes and dreams and a lot more about other people. You will move in the direction of self-less-ness, which is a good thing, because if there is no self, who is it that has to die some day? There will be no one there to die. There will be no self. Die now, so you won’t have to do it later. Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom. And you can find this freedom, which we might also call happiness. Your life can open toward greater happiness and greater freedom, and it is entirely up to you to make that happen. Because in the end you have the power to do it no matter what the universe seems to be like and no matter the challenges of our place and time. You really are in charge of your own happiness. Which is, I think, both exhilarating and terrifying. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could do it for you? It’s such a daunting and important task, really the central task of life. But I urge you to work, on your own, or with the right mentors, or preferably, in both ways, as honestly and fiercely as you can on this matter of your own happiness. Don’t settle for the answers all around you that are not really answers. Don’t settle for a life of quiet desperation. And most of all, don’t settle for unhappiness. I want to tell you that happiness is possible, and that you don’t have to be despairing and afraid. But it’s up to you, to each of you, to seek out the wisdom that happiness requires. Not learning but wisdom, which is something else altogether. I wish you a long life, the better to find and deepen that wisdom. And I wish you happiness.