Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

My Commencement Speech

It’s that time of the year again when universities call on dignitaries and luminaries to give commencement speeches to their students.  Most of these speeches will be rambling, pointless and sleep-inducing.  Others less so.  And a select few — 10 or less I’d suppose — will actually make an imprint on the minds of those who hear them.  Doubtful that I will ever be a part of the exclusive club of commencement speakers, I have written a commencement speech that I wish was given to me during my graduation, and which, if ever called on to speak at a commencement ceremony, I’d give, in one form or another, to others.

I am grateful to be your commencement speaker for today.  Thanks are in order to the powers that be at Acme College who in asking me to come give this talk thought I’d have something useful to say to all of you.  That itself is a tall order and I hope I will be able to deliver.  At the very least, I will keep my remarks brief, since the only  thing worse than a boring commencement speech is a long and boring commencement speech.  

This means I’ll spare you with the useless advice, given by many a commencement speaker, about following your dreams and giving back to the community that gave you this wonderful college degree.  Such advice is useless mostly because you are being told that you should be selfish and selfless at the same time.  Talk about sending mixed signals.         

Not that there’s isn’t a middle ground.  There surely is.  I can envision a scenario where you might be able to pursue your  passion rather than, say, the work that was expected of you by your family and your peers, but still have the wherewithal and resources, perhaps because of the nature of your work or because of your general approach to life, that allows you to care for those around you.  By the phrase “those around you” I don’t necessarily mean your family members, who are of course important persons in your collective lives, but also those you might never meet in your life but whose destines are necessarily tied to your own. 

But living life as a series of rules is a bore, isn’t it?  After all, we spend a lot of our childhood and even our adult lives trying to live lives with no rules, or trying to break the rules that are imposed on us, as we all should.  We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the rule-breakers who have populated this Earth, and still do for that matter.   

So no more rules or advice as far as I’m concerned.  Instead, I’d like to pause a moment and give you something of a quiz.  My apologies to those of you who thought his or her days of exams were finally over.  But don’t worry it’s a fairly short quiz and you won’t be graded on it — not now at least.  The quiz consists of one multiple choice question that you answer based on a fictitious story.  Anyway, it’s easier to give it than to explain it, so here goes.

Imagine you are a top scientist at a large corporation.  The company you work for happens to be one that makes and sells cigarettes among other tobacco products.  You are paid handsomely for the work that you do at the company, let’s give it a nice neutral name like Fairwood or FW for short.  Because of your salary your wife doesn’t need to work, you can send your kids to good schools and generally provide for your family as you see fit, without worries about how much it might cost you.  While working at FW you notice that the company is manipulating the ingredients it puts into its cigarettes to make them more addictive but also more toxic.  You feel uncomfortable about this development but know that if you raise concerns about it to upper management you will be putting your job in jeopardy and hence the money you make to support your family.  The question you need to answer then is what would you do if you were placed in this situation?  Would you:

a) Keep your mouth shut and continue doing what FW asks you to do to refine its new and improved brand of cigarettes in hope that doing so will earn you the promotion you had long sought. 

b) Keep your mouth shut but actively look for a similar position with another tobacco company in hope that your new employer has yet to catch on to the practice pioneered by your former employer of jacking up its cigarettes thereby extricating yourself from the moral quandary you faced at FW but still maintaining the kind of prestige and salary you enjoyed there.   

c) Quit your job in protest and go public with what FW has been doing with its cigarettes thereby destroying your career as a tobacco scientist and perhaps your entire scientific career, and guaranteeing that you will never see the kind of money you were able to make at FW and to which you and your family have grown accustomed. 

If you haven’t already guessed this scenario is based on a true story.  In that  story our scientist friend goes for option (c) — that is, he quits in protest and goes public with the dirty deeds of his former employer but sees his personal life deteriorate. 

If you too went for option (c) then congratulations your moral compass is rightly aligned.  If you selected option (a) congratulations are also in order since you will be well on your road to becoming filthy rich and having the kind of lifestyle that comes with being filthy rich.  If you answered option (b) your future is more murky; millionaire is not out of the question but neither is a ticket to the unemployment or social security office after you’ve outlived your usefulness in corporate America. 

So where’s the middle ground I talked about earlier in my speech?  I ask because your answer to that question is much more important than how you might have answered the quiz  I just gave you.  It’s a question that you will have to answer over and over again as you get older and are placed in situations of increasing responsibility in relation to your family members, your friends and your colleagues.  And where you come out on this question will shape in one way or another the kind of community in which we all live. 

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to give this talk, which, as I promised earlier, I want to be brief.  In any event I’m not sure I have anything else of use that I could say to you.  As you can probably tell I’m still learning about what it means to be a responsible human being.  And the older I get the more I feel as if I know less and less about that, or at least it sure seems that way.  To quote the great Kurt Vonnegut: “Whenever my children complain about the planet to me, I say ‘Shut up, I just got here myself’.”

Take care and good luck. 

The Wisdom of Uncle Alex

From Kurt Vonnegut’s, A Man Without a Country:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren.  And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren.  They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess.  But it has always been a mess.  There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days.  And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me.  I just got here.”

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity — the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever.  Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth.  Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today I am a woman.  Today I am a man.  The end.”

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, “You’re a man now.”  So I killed him.  Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex.  He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis.  He was well-read and wise.  And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed it when they were happy.  So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids.  And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”