Today's Google Doodle pays tribute to Franz Kafka on his 130th birthday. Specifically, Kafka's famous story in which Gregor Samsa turns cockroach. And if you need more Kafka in your life, consider buying a lovely, strange new book, My First Kafka by Matthue Roth and Rohan Daniel Eason. Yep, it's Kafka for kids.
There's a Kafka for kids book. This is amazing.
Be All Your Selves: Joss Whedon’s 2013 Wesleyan Commencement Address on Embracing Our Inner Contradictions
“Identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is a process that you must be active in.”
On the heels of this season’s finest commencement addresses — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, and Arianna Huffington on redefining success — comes screenwriter, producer, composer, and actor Joss Whedon, who delivered the 2013 Wesleyan commencement address, brimming with sometimes uncomfortable but invariably profound reminders of our purpose and challenges as human beings.
Annotated highlights below.
Whedon begins with a rather atypical subject for graduation speeches — the mortality paradox:
What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die. … You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.
I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”
And that’s actually what I’d like to talk to you about. The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.
Like science, Whedon argues, human identity is inherent contradiction, driven by “something that is a constant in your life and in your identity, not just in your body but in your own mind, in ways that you may recognize or you may not.” And given what we know about the myth of one-dimensional personality, this makes sense. But this ability to recognize and embrace our inner conflicts and bipolar tensions, Whedon assures as he echoes Bruce Lee, is a blessing rather than a curse — one of the hallmarks of being human, even. In that respect, he reminds us, like Anaïs Nin eloquently did, that our identity is in constant revision — or, as Vi Hart memorably put it, “Your greatest creation is yourself. Like any great work of art, creating a great self means putting in hard work, every day, for years.” Whedon urges:
You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key — not only to consciousness, but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in.
Whedon goes on to encourage us to try embracing rather than eradicating those inner paradoxes of which we’re all woven:
This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.
In a nod to one of science’s core principles, which is the constant critical thinking that battles the vanity of certainty, Whedon speaks for the value of questioning your convictions before you become too ossified to nimbly respond to criticism:
Because you are establishing your identities and your beliefs, you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you, and whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition, somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first, you won’t be able to answer back, you won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me, try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.
“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Anaïs Nin observed. “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent,” Martine advised in his famous 1866 do’s and don’ts of conversation, “so you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” And yet, Whedon argues, ours is a culture Simone de Beauvoir would wince at, one staggeringly uncomfortable with ambiguity and fixated on righteous reductionism — a toxic tendency where change is most critical and urgent:
[Our culture] is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite.
That doesn’t mean the crazy guy on the radio who is spewing hate, it means the decent human truths of all the people who feel the need to listen to that guy. You are connected to those people. They’re connected to him. You can’t get away from it. This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level.
Ultimately, what makes Whedon’s speech so beautiful is that he takes one of commencement addresses’ most contrived tropes and turns it on its head, gives its trampled flatness new dimension:
So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before. And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are — not in a clichéd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense — the future.
After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just be yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.
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In 1877 James McNeill Whistler sued John Ruskin for panning his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now,” Ruskin had written, “but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The trial saw this exchange between Whistler and Ruskin’s attorney, Sir John Holker:
Holker: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?
Whistler: Oh, I “knock one off” possibly in a couple of days — one day to do the work and another to finish it.
Holker: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.
Similar: When Henry Ford’s engineers were unable to solve a problem with a huge new generator, he called Charles Steinmetz. Steinmetz listened to the generator for two days, made some calculations, mounted a ladder, and drew a chalk mark on its side. If the engineers would remove 16 windings from the field coil at that location, he said, the generator would work perfectly. He was right.
Afterward, Ford received a bill for $10,000. When he respectfully asked for an itemization, Steinmetz sent this:
Making chalk mark on generator: $1
Knowing where to make mark: $9,999
Total due: $10,000
There it is, the object of your affection — a nice big juicy steak, ready for your wholehearted consumption and gustatory devotion. So you pick you your fork in your left hand, the knife in the right, cut a nice piece of it… and then you probably switch your fork to your right hand. Take a deep breath: That’s wrong.
This, all according to the Europeans, Slate relays in a very interesting and lengthy look at the cut-and-switch maneuver many Americans practice at the dinner table.
Europeans keep the fork in their left hands after sawing with the knife in their right, something I happen to also do and was once told by a friend made me look “quite Continental” (really she called me pretentious and laughed). But it turns out that it was the Europeans who first popularized this switcheroo, and we Americans only copied it to be, well, cool at eating.
Back when we were in the infancy of our Americanness, we wanted to be more like the French. And right around the early 18th century, it became popular in France to lay the knife down after cutting and move the fork to the right, in line with the medieval tradition of showing someone you weren’t about to stab someone with that knife.
The French were going against the established grain by doing so, it turns out. See, in the days of yore when forks and knives first came on the scene, diners emulated the kitchen staff who would use the fork to steady a large hank of whichever beast was being butchered and use the dominant (usually) right hand to cut the meat.
While it’s unclear why the French decided to go rogue, it could be that they had so much fancy food to eat at high society dinners that using the right hand was just easier for transporting delicacies. Fork-traveling move could also be seen as a prejudice against the left hand, as any lefty will tell you it’s a hard row to hoe when most everyone else is a righty.
In any case, France switched back to the no-switchbacks mode of dining somewhere in the mid-1800s while we Americans kept on shoveling food in the same way because that’s how we eat, and no one can tell us otherwise.
So what should we take away from this? Well, it is a free country — if you don’t mind the extra time it takes to cross that fork over, I say eat however you want. Whatever gets the food from the plate to your mouth sounds fine by me.
For more on intense history of knifing and forking, check out Slate’s investigation in the source link below.
Put a Fork in It [Slate]
By Leo Babauta
Often we’re discouraged because of some tough challenge or obstacle in our way. But a shift in mindset from a Zen proverb can change everything: “The obstacle is the path.”
The obstacle isn’t something standing in our way. It’s the way itself.
That might seem strange, so let’s look at a few examples:
- You are struggling with writing, and procrastinate. Procrastination is the symptom, but it also illuminates the path you should take: you are dreading something about the writing, you are shying away from discomfort, you are afraid of the writing or what will happen when you publish the writing. So work with that dread, the discomfort, and the fear. You’ll be stronger for having done that.
- You are shy and can’t meet people. This can be seen as an obstacle to social happiness, or as a path for something to work with. Many people will avoid this obstacle of shyness, and instead stay home and not socialize. Instead, go towards this shyness, explore it, find out what you’re afraid of, work with that fear. You’ll get better at handling the fear, even let go of it, and it will no longer stand in your way.
- You are stressed out and overwhelmed at work. You can complain about this problem (and it will then continue for the rest of your life), or you can immerse yourself in it, let it lead you to self-exploration, and deal with the source of that stress and overwhelm. You’ll learn that you have unrealistic expectations and ideals, learn to let go of them, and the stress will go away. You’ll now have a tool for dealing with stress for the rest of your life.
- People criticize you for doing things different, and don’t understand what you’re doing. You can get mad at them, rage against the unfairness of the world, or avoid them. Or, instead, you could embrace this concern, thank them for caring about you, and engage them in a conversation about what you’re going through, why you decided to do it, and how you could use their support. They might not completely understand, but they also might understand you better, which is great. And you’ll now be better at dealing with this forevermore.
- You are jealous, angry, weak, impatient, grieving. You can deal with any of these issues, if you are willing to go into them, and be OK with experiencing these discomforts.
The examples can go on forever, but the principle becomes clear: when there’s an obstacle, don’t go around it. Don’t run from it. Go into it. Work with it. Explore it. Learn how to be with it and deal with it, and you’ll have a skill for life.
And what’s more: you will no longer be limited by obstacles in your path.