This season of commencement speeches and their exhortations to live your dreams, follow your bliss, etc. is usually accompanied by jaundiced responses from newspaper columnists about how tiresome it is to hear commencement speeches and their exhortations to live your dreams, follow your bliss, etc.
Granted, we have heard these messages of hope and idealism a time or two before. But I would ask these columnists what general theme they would propose commencement speakers embrace instead. Maybe something along the lines of:
“Lower your expectations! Dampen your hopes, scuttle your dreams, it’s just a bunch of hooey, you won’t even be able to change yourself, much less the world, give it up before you even start! Just say ‘No!’ to life!”
I suspect that message wouldn’t cause graduates to launch their mortarboards joyfully into the air or parents with moist eyes to look with gladdened hearts upon their progeny who are prancing across the stage waving their diplomas over their heads to the relentless loop of Pomp & Circumstance.
There are so many forces pressing against us in this life, so much gravity—both literal and figurative—keeping us range-bound, whether in our movements, our emotions, or the daring-do of our dreams. Repeated failures await, lining up like statues with rigid limbs and vacant expressions, long index fingers pointed permanently down a darkened boulevard.
No. Can’t. Shouldn’t. Not now. Better not.
Be sober, realistic, modest. Take what life gives you.
“Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”
Rushdie was addressing writers in that excerpt from his Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, but the advice no less applies. His is a resounding “Yes!” to counter the “No, you’d better not!” that comes at us from so many directions in life. This “Yes!” manifests as an openness to experience, a willingness to risk, a general (and generous) embrace of joy and hope, an enthusiastic “Sure, why not?” to the invitation to try something new, whether it’s a new person, food, journey, gathering or perspective.
‘Yes!’ is never immune to the incursions of ‘No!’ They are versions of God and Satan, those two, joined at the hip and forever trading blows.
“Yes!” holds possibility, among which may be failure, misery and confusion, to be sure. But also freedom and joy.
“Yes!” is the royal road to ecstasy, along whose byways lie the corpses of miscalculation, of hopes crashed to earth, the quest for experience that takes you, like the Greek god Icarus, soaring too close to the sun.
Yet for all the natural constraints imposed by our mortality and by other people whose own versions of “Yes!” may conflict with ours, I would submit that “Yes!” is our natural inclination because joy is our natural state—tempered, of course, by times when we must trudge through life in mere survival mode. And even then, we live in hope of escaping the prison of mere survival.
On every beach, in every restaurant and bar and corner cafe, at every campground, mountain meadow, athletic arena and family game room, pleasure, bliss and transcendence are the stalwart menu items every day. All of it jostled and bird-dogged by decay and death, accident and disease.
And much as those latter events can buckle us at the knees, it’s uncanny how relentlessly, with what (sometimes blind) hope, we tend to get up and get going again, employing all manner of tricks—ritual, religion, well-timed vacations and retreats, the comfort and encouragement of friends—to assist us.
At a young friend’s wedding some years ago, I didn’t know many people, so I spent some time before the festivities observing rather than interacting with guests. One young man with sharp features and a reserved manner arrived by himself, looking like an executive-in-the-making with a nicely tailored sports jacket and tie and spotless tasseled shoes. The skin on his face and prominent jaw looked tightly bound, as if it hadn’t spent much time flexing from smiles to frowns and back again. Emotional range: not promising.
Hours later, the bride was being tossed up and down on a chair high in the air (this was a Jewish wedding, and it was a doozie) and I spotted this same young man eagerly hoisting one of its legs, sweating, his tie askew, the veins in his forehead popped, emitting a full-throated roar to the ceiling and the heavens beyond. His face radiated pleasure and unconstrained, joyful involvement in the task at hand.
Somewhere between the reserve of his entrance and the abandon of the chair toss, there had been a “Yes!”, most likely assisted by champagne, the sights and smells of pretty young women, the wedding celebration’s inherent elements of hope and joy. It was a striking contrast that I’ve remembered to this day.
Sure, “Yes!” can sometimes mean excess, with the drive home from the mountain winery site of the wedding perhaps turning to the “No!” of no-more-life as this young man’s sports car careens off the road and hits a tree. “Yes!” is never immune to the incursions of “No!” They are versions of God and Satan, those two, joined at the hip and forever trading blows.
The comic Stephen Colbert got at the power and perils of “Yes!” in…yes….a commencement speech! Here is what he offered Knox College grads in 2006:
“Now will saying ‘yes’ get you in trouble at times? Will saying ‘yes’ lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say ‘no’. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’”
I would quibble only with Colbert’s assertion that “‘Yes’ is for young people,” simply because of how often through the typical life cycle adults have to restate “Yes!” in their recovery from all the events that invite them to curl up in a permanent “No.” (Death of loved ones, severe illness, loss of friends or functional capacity, despair for humankind when the likes of Donald Trump can run for president; it’s a long list, with plentiful power for negation through the rest of one’s days.)
The French have a felicitous phrase that exemplifies the state of one who tends to say “Yes!” Joie de vie translates to “joy of life,” and we know and feel this in people who possess it.
They are upbeat without being naive, blessed with (or likely have “earned”) a sunny disposition that reflects both gratitude and a certain humility for the good fortune that is theirs. And whatever suffering they have endured (“souffrances de vie?”) has only enhanced their capacity for joy.
Come to think of it, the French, they of the fabulous cuisine and wines to be enjoyed at long lingering meals with friends and family, have a pretty good handle on all that a consistent response of “Yes!” offers to life.
Some serious gospel music imploring “Yes!”? Hell yes!
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Deep appreciation to photographer Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Fireworks photo by Jeff Golden, Raymore, Missouri, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffanddayna/
“Yes!” windows photo by Duncan C., London, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan/
Champagne glass photo by Steven Zolneczko, Huddersfield, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pepemczolz/