Some of us have it in our nature to sound the alarm, and some to say that this, too, shall pass.
Both are right, of course. Panic generates fight or flight, and we’ve seen the limitations of those tools for problem-solving. (Have we ever!) But an impenetrable conviction that all will be well without our intervention, however enviable it may seem at times of stress, may not serve us when action is required: there’s not much nobility in standing stock-still on shore, calling to the one who is drowning to have faith, it will be over soon.
In his beautiful little book on Jewish mysticism, The Thirteen-Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes (in what has become one of my favorite spiritual teachings) that in our tradition, which places great emphasis on human beings’ role in healing the world, ?the man who has stopped going — he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest — [is] someone who has lost his way.?
Here’s what I’m wondering today: what balance of alertness and trust, of movement and rest, is called upon in this moment of extremes? What guidance do we have to offer the next generation?
Earlier this week the New York Times ran its annual round-up of excerpts from graduation speeches at universities around the country. Some people tried to terrify graduates and some to reassure them. Some of the speeches read like a string of beads, one banality after another, and some were heartfelt, expressing clear individual voices. The differences were enormous: Dick Cheney gave a triumphalist sermon at the Air Force Academy while Mario Batali offered a recipe at Rutgers and speaking at Colgate University, Marian Wright Edelman warned of the “cradle-to-prison” pipeline ready to receive young men of color. But despite their differences, two themes resonated with me.
First, as Tom Hanks pointed out at Vassar, this year’s graduates started college just before the terrorist attack on the twin towers in September 2001. Thus, their entire undergraduate experience has been colored by the fear and belligerence that has gripped our country ever since.
I take this very seriously, because especially in times of crisis, headlines easily become the defining metaphors of a generation. As I’ve written here before, my friend Jim Klein showed in his film Letter to the Next Generation how civil rights struggles of the 50s and early 60s shaped our generation’s activism in the late 60s and 70s, kindling our determination to speak truth to power; and how the college kids he interviewed in 1990, on the 20th anniversary of the killing of protesters at Kent State by National Guard members, had been profoundly shaped by the Iran hostage crisis. The first thing that drew them to watch the nightly news or pick up the morning paper was the slogan “America Held Hostage.” By and large, they have voted for candidates who promised no one would be able to kick us around again.
What will the current generation of graduates make of 9/11 as their defining metaphor? Some on the right are hoping they will continue to support the idea of Fortress America: perpetual war for perpetual peace, as Gore Vidal has put it. But I can also imagine they will see that no wall is high enough to hold back danger, and choose not to imprison themselves in the name of security. Quite a few colleges invited progressive activists to speak this very truth, and often the choice of speaker reflects students’ own preferences.
Second, many speakers said that basic principles of fairness and mutuality are under assault, and that there is a role for every individual in restoring what Bill Moyers, speaking at the City University of New York, called the “web of cooperation.” “A profound transformation,” he said, “is occurring in America as the balance between wealth and the commonwealth is threatened by that ‘winner-take-all’ ideology.” At Knox College, Barack Obama denounced the idea that government ought to be privatized, with each of us left to buy our own education, health care and retirement plan: “In Washington,” he said, “they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it — Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself…. This isn’t us.”
If I were delivering a commencement address this year, I would stress the goal of a shining life, a life of integrity, which for me is one predicated on the inseparability of awareness and action. I am deeply alarmed, it is true. But as we cannot know the future until it unfolds, I also see the possibility that we will respond to the growing alarm that pervades our society with all of the resilience, creativity and healing power we possess.
When I started to write today, Yeats’ great poem “The Second Coming” was drifting through my mind. I was thinking how often in the 85 years since he wrote it people have quoted its brilliant lines to express their terror and despair:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
True enough, I thought. This is the image of my fear. Yet we are still here to read it. It has persisted in all its terrifying beauty, I would tell the students, and so have we. Then I would give the graduates Hillel’s 2000 year-old wisdom from the compilation called Pirke Avot, three questions just as fresh and true — pointing just as strongly toward freedom — today as on the day they were written down: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
Then, before I sent them off with blessings for pleasure, engagement and meaning in their lives, I would quote the venerable activist Granny D, who told Hampshire College students that when she went to jail for reading from the Declaration of Independence inside the Capitol, she “felt freer in that jail, because I have spoken out as a free person, than I have ever felt in the open air. I am not finished being a free American, whatever happy costs await me. I do not know what is in store for you. But I know that courage is freedom, and freedom is joy.”
The choice to stand against fear is always open to us. Making it fulfills our duty to the future, to the people a hundred years hence — perhaps even 2,000 years from now, the distance from which Hillel speaks to my heart today — who will look to us for evidence of the persistence of light, and who will need to find it at least as badly as we want it today.