“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.
Complement Whedon’s with more timeless words of wisdom from graduates, including Neil Gaiman on making good art, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life.
Portrait of Joss Whedon by Joe Pugieliese for Wired; public domain images via Flickr Commons
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