I am forever intrigued by commencement addresses. I’m attracted to their charge to young people to take on the world, to capture some virtue that you will guide their adult journey.
Madeline Albright- the former secretary of words to Mount Holyoke students. She states: “But no matter how weary you may become in persuading others to see the value in what you value, have courage still- and persevere.”
The poet-Maya Angelou- directs the graduate to not be discouraged in the face of failure: “Though one may experience defeat, don’t be defeated. That’s what it takes to make the caged bird sing.”
And Ken Burns the documentary film director and producer, charges graduates to engage the past: “As you pursue the future, your future, pursue the past. Let it be your guide. Learn about the history of your family and this country. Let history inform your future.”
I liked all of these, but Garrison Keihler, whose charge to graduates continues on in a different vein, wrote the one that most intrigued me of late in poem form:
“Let’s not forget to talk about failure. Failure is essential, a form of mortality, without it a person has a very weak sense of reality. It is all well and good to strive for glory but today’s grievous mistake is tomorrow’s humorous story. And one should not be a person whose memories consist of notes from the classes you never missed. In short my advice is to go out and have a crisis.
Would the prodigal son’s dad have killed the fatted calf, if the boy had graduated with an average of 3.99 1/2. No. Nor would Job have grown so wise in the lords ways had his only tribulation been one or two bees in a whole long string of A’s.
A person who lives a charmed life gets the great job and the size four wife. The starter mansion that proclaims his wealth with beautiful children with Celtic names. At the age of 40 a successful analyst, he runs off with a cocktail waitress named Misty. He takes up cocaine and dungarees and permed hair and writes third-rate poems in the style of Boldaire. For five years he writes poems about spiritual emptiness and hunger. This would have taken two months had he done it when he was younger.
Oh you are brave navigators on the road to tomorrow, but speak to your parents and ask to borrow 2 or 3,000 bucks and have yourself a beautiful disastrous summer, Have a glorious summer so that as the autumn days come nigh, your adventures are the envy of the other alumni. Forget about excellence, think about courage. And let that audaciousness, emer-age.”
I like this charge, because it points to making a mess. To get oneself enmeshed in the muck. To make a mess, have a crisis. Only then do you really live.
I like it because we are much more comfortable with the neat and tidy life. Carl Haissen gets at this in his book, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World. In it he ticks off example after example of how Disney polishes up and purifies everything it touches.
The book begins with how Disney has worked it’s magic on the urban Gomorrah that used to be Times Square. Before Disney arrived in 1994, Times Square swarmed unabashedly with hookers, hustlers, crack-heads and was the address of forty-seven porn shops. Then CEO Michael Eisner introduced the wholesome presence of the Disney store at one end of the block and kindly donated 38 million of Mickey’s money to restore the New Amsterdam Theater at the other end of the block. Slowly but surely the ultimate goodness of Walt’s world eclipsed the famous street of sex shows and smut peddling as the selling of hard-core porn was replace by hard core mousekteers flooding into Times Square to purchase Goofy back packs and Donald Duck watches and to see the musical production of Disney’s The Lion King.
In addition to the Magic Kingdom’s “urban renewal efforts” Hiassen highlights Disney’s regular efforts to improve even upon Mother Nature’s handiwork. Florida, the home of Walt Disney World, is dappled with lovely tree-lined lakes, but the waters are often tea-colored from cypress bark. The giant lake that sets as the crown jewel in the middle of the amusement park was originally one of those tea-colored lakes. But for the sake of a better postcard, Disney gave it a new and improved look, yanking out the cypress trees, draining the lake, scraping out the muck on the bottom replacing it with imported sand, then refilling the crater with a batch of beautiful blue water. And to make things perfect, a few beaches were added around the edges.
For the most part Haissen is not interested in condemning Disney as a corporation. It is Disney as an image-maker that frightens and disgusts him most. It’s Disney’s world-view, not Disney’s corporate practices, that Hiassen wants us to be alarmed about.
“Team Rodent doesn’t believe in sleaze, however, nor in old-fashioned revulsion. Square in the middle is where it wants us all to be, dependable consumers with predictable attitudes. The message, never stated but avuncularly implied, is that America’s values ought to reflect those of the Walt Disney Company and not the other way around. It is creepy sanitization run amuck.”
Now a minute ago, I said that Carl Hiasen’s beef was with Disney, but as I read that passage I can’t help wonder if Hiasen’s beef is not really with us.
Disney may be selling the artificially purified goods and the easy to swallow world- view, but we are the ones doing all the buying!
When Hiassen talks about city folks who are willing to believe that
The Disney Store has solved the problem of sex shops when in truth they’ve
just moved over to the next block. . .
Or vacationers who don’t mind fake as long as it is fun, safe and ready made,
He’s talking about us.
He’s talking about a culture that wants more than anything to have the messiness of life swept out of sight and out of mind.
Because we often prefer the sanitized version to reality.
We sanitize war. Unlike the Vietnam war in which bloodshed, destruction and the perils of war were common place on the evening news, the press now has limited access to any war zone, and when they do, they are relegated to where the military deems appropriate for them to “view” the war. Further we try to clean up the carnage. Donald Rumsfield has referred to the conflict in Iraq as a “Bloodless War.” Yes, he’s right, relatively bloodless for us, but not for thousands of Iraq’s- who are left wounded, dead, and homeless.
We sanitize history. Now I could give you many examples of this, but perhaps the timeliest is the celebration of Columbus Day. Most children get the day off and are told of the exploits of Mr. Christopher as the explorer who “discovered” America. Meanwhile, the propagation of genocide on the native people not only by Columbus, but the Pilgrims and the US government is rarely mentioned.
We sanitize death. It used to be that when a loved one died, you had calling hours at the house, with the deceased on view. Now we call the funeral home, and they whisk the body away. We even use euphemisms for death: they passed away, gone to heaven, no longer with us; in an effort to minimize or clean up the reality that death stripped us of that which gave us joy.
We sanitize the food we eat. No longer do many of us have to care for and butcher our own meat. Now we have the comfort of buying chicken wings already neatly packaged in cellophane and styrophome. We don’t say we are eating a cow, but beef, a pig is pork, so much so that I had some kids ask me the other day what pork was made out of? What animal were they eating?
We sanitize the cars we drive. This summer Scott and I went to the Parade of Homes in Syracuse, and in each of the driveways to these extravagant homes, there were brand new Humveys. The sticker price was masked to the passenger side window, coming in at a hefty $54,000. a piece. When you scanned down to check the gas mileage, the sticker had the gas mileage in it’s line up of facts, but the actual mileage was missing. I had to look it up the information on the Internet when I got home to find that they average about 11 miles to the gallon. And let’s be honest, 11 miles to the gallon doesn’t look too good in a resource mindful environment, so not to offend anyone, they just don’t give you the information. Thus, the Humvey became conveniently sanitized.
We as a culture want more than anything to have the messiness of life swept out of sight and out of mind. As if we are in search of the sanitized life.
The sanitized life. But when we have the sanitized life, when every bed is made, and dinners complete with all four food groups, when our children love us for each of our gracious actions and excel in school, when our husband or wife or partner is kind, considerate, doting, when our house is an object of envy and perfection, we live a sanitized life. We live like the character Laura Brown in the movie The Hours.
Now, before I continue, her character is a full indictment of the sanitization of her life as a housewife. But you could sanitize anyone’s life- teachers, retiree’s, lawyers, and stockbrokers- if you were caught up in the perfection of the life, to the detriment of really living.
So, if you haven’t sent the film, it’s painful to watch. I’m not telling
you too much about the entire film, but out of necessity to get at sanitization,
let me detail her life a little bit. She is the pregnant mother with
a four-year-old boy. A housewife in an immaculate house, with a loving
doting husband. She is coifed, and performs the role of housewife
like all of her friends, and their friends in suburbia each hour after
each hour of the day. Laura is painfully unhappy. When you
observe her day, you feel this need to add mess to her life, because she
fades into the sanitization of her life. She lives a Disneyized
life. No mess, no crisis, and to be honest, it is tragic. She
eventually can’t handle the disinfected life she is enveloped in, and adds
more pain to her story, by abandoning her children, as she sets off in
search of a life that doesn’t mirror that of the living dead.
And so with this analysis on the need for an escape from the neat and tidy life, I wanted to find someone who engaged in the un-going mess of life. Because I am convinced that it is through being willing to escape the sanitization that the marvelous arises.
Our Unitarian Universalist sources call us to heed the: Words and deeds
of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures
of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.
You don’t find these types of people who live sanitary lives. Disneyized
lives. Find lives of challenge with those who embrace the mess.
Someone like Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh was an awesome painter. He had a unique mix of his own Dutch heritage of stark value contrasts, and an intrigue exploration and love of color and light with the impressionists. He produced fiery, engrossing work. In college, we went over his work consistently, as he painted his bedroom numerous times, by messing with the color of his bed from blue to yellow to gray. His work was used as the premier example of how color could set a mood, or tone.
Yet here’s the rub. Vincent lived in an ongoing mess. He was a preachers kid, and longed to become a minister himself. Yet he was a poor student, and described as a “lifeless orator.” He wasn’t accepted into seminary, but he didn’t let that dissuade him. Instead, he asked for post as a student pastor, and was assigned a position in the impoverished coal-mining district of Belgium. As one biographer commented, “Unfortunately, he became so emotionally attached to those under his care-sympathetic to their working conditions- that he became fanatical about giving away his food and clothing, and eventually the church dismissed him for his asceticism.” He lived in a mess. Once relieved of his duties, he stayed in that district, painting numerous peasants, until he returned back to his family with the hopes of attending art school. He applies to art school. Yet again he is rejected. No matter, in the midst of the mess, he continues to work on his painting while living with a prostitute and her two children, in which he eventually needed to leave the relationship in order to continue to paint. At the same time, a neighbor of his from childhood, had fallen in love with him, though the emotions weren’t mutual, and she then tried to commit suicide because of his rejection, which leaves him distraught and upset over her actions. He lived in a mess.
Next Van Gogh moves in with fellow artist Gaugan, of which they worked tumultuously together for a brief time, wherein Vincent got so upset over an argument with his colleague that he cut off a part of his ear. Gaugan moved out, and Vincent was institutionalized for a brief time. The mess got messier, and at its height, he painted Starry Night, perhaps one of the greatest gifts of art the world has been graced with. In the midst of his biggest messes, he reached the highest acclaim he would receive while he was alive.
In the midst of the mess, he achieved greatness, magnificence flourished, abounded. Beauty resounded.
Similarly, I heard about another fellow who despite the mess, offered gifts. This fellow was a musician, and singer confined to a Nazi death camp in WWII. He taught all of his bunkmates, the various parts to the Vivaldi requiem. Line by line, he would sing a phrase out for folks, whether tenor, bass, alto and soprano parts, so that they could sing collectively together as they patiently and methodically had learned the piece by ear. His efforts levitated their lives to experience beauty; turning a mess into hope. It gave their death in a world that felt meaningless, as each individuals contribution to such beauty and song was valued and appreciated for the piece they brought to the collective. As people were sent off to their immanent death and new prisoners arrived, he patiently taught the same lines and music to the new ad hoc community, making beauty out of the mess. Dispelling hope out of the mess. Teaching in the midst of the mess.
Now I don’t know about you, but there are a few things in life I think we need more often than when we are 18 or 21. Along with my view that I think we should each have to take the behind the wheel drivers test every 20 years to reinstate our drivers license, I think we need a commencement speech for pre-midlife- midlife and post midlife. We need to be reminded again and again of the charges to take on.
And so it is that I charge us to messiness. If you live a relatively sanitized life, get messy. Engage in the muck. Have a crisis. Get dirty.
If you already are living with the mess, then reconcile yourself to it. Reconcile yourself to the fact that indeed the marvelous doesn’t come from the sanitized life, it comes from engaging in the muck.
As Nietzsche wrote: “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” I have a friend whose grandmother used to say, “things that hurt us instruct.” He asks the questions of us, who has ever understood life without first having his heart broken? Who has really seen, except through tears? Who really lives, without the mess?
I like the words of my colleague Don Wheat who says of church- “Part of the reason we come here each week is to take a hard look at ourselves, to give ourselves a talking to and to make decision that involve taking responsibilities for our lives.” To take responsibility for your life is to examine if you have avoided the mess, hoping beauty, possibility, and options arise out of sanitization. How many of us need to examine while engrossed in the mess, our desire for a sanitized version of life, because we are just too damn tired? We don’t want to tough it out any more for beauty or hope to float out of the current crisis.
Now, this is not to suggest that involve yourself in mess is an easy task. However, I am suggesting that I am pretty sure none of us want Laura Brown’s life in The Hours. We all want and need to feel alive, to get messy and dirty.
William Sloan Coffin suggested we must carry on a lover’s quarrel with the world so that when we depart this life we leave behind us a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty, a little more laughter.
Carry on a lover’s quarrel with the world. Reject sanitization. These are our commencement words for ongoing life.
So may it be.