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Friday, June 14, 2013

The Full Text of David Guterson's Controversial Commencement Speech

Posted by on Fri, Jun 14, 2013 at 10:55 AM

There are a lot of questions about what local novelist David Guterson actually said during his gloomy talk at Roosevelt High School's graduation ceremony, a speech that had some parents in the audience heckling him and trying to cut his address short. Here's the full text, which Guterson shared with some folks this morning:

Thank you. And thank you to the organizers of this event for giving me the opportunity to speak. I don’t take it lightly. Life’s short, and we don’t often have the chance to share what we think and feel is most important. This, for me, is exactly that chance, and I don’t want to waste it by talking to you casually. Right now, I have 15 minutes, and after that I will leave this podium, and it might be the case that never again will I have the microphone at a ceremony like this one, where it’s perfectly acceptable for me to offer up my take on things—where it’s even expected that I’ll offer my take on things. That take on things, most of the time, remains private, which is how it should be. You have your own—everyone here has their own vision of life. But right now I’ve been invited to share mine, and I’d like to do that with everyone here—not just with the graduating seniors but with their parents and siblings, their friends and relatives, their teachers, the administrators on hand tonight, to anyone in reach who cares to listen.

And what I want to talk about, as specifically and straightforwardly as possible, is happiness—happiness as something elusive on the one hand, and central to our concerns as human beings on the other. At every moment of our waking lives, we’re either in pursuit of happiness or enjoying its presence. When we feel unhappy, we want to change that, and when we feel happy, we want that to continue. At this very moment you are somewhere on the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness. If you are bored or uncomfortable, if your unhappiness takes those forms, you want things to change in the direction of less boredom and more comfort—in other words, in the direction of more happiness. If you’re enjoying this moment and finding it entirely pleasant, you don’t need things to change. Life, quite relentlessly, is of this nature, and all of us pass it, from moment to moment, either addressing our unhappiness or enjoying our happiness. All of us get considerable amounts of both, no matter what we do, but some people get more of one or the other, and I submit to you that you yourself have much to say about the amount of each in your life. In fact, no one, and nothing, has more to say about it than you.

I have an absolutely clear memory of being 18 and graduating from Roosevelt High School. I remember that many things made me feel happy, and that I pursued those things with vigor, but I also remember that I dreaded adulthood, and even more, old age and death, and that no matter what I was doing, no matter how good were the good times, somewhere at the bottom—underneath the music and the friends, the late nights and the fun—somewhere at the bottom there was always an awareness that this wasn’t going to last forever, and that I would have to get old like everyone else, which might not be so fun, and that one day, I would die, which wouldn’t be fun, either. Sometimes I would go for long periods without thinking about this, but then it would come to me again, the reality of my aging and death, an awareness of this while I was having so much fun, and the way I dealt with it was by telling myself that old age and death were way off in the future, that I had a lot of time, that I would deal with it later. Or I denied it. I told myself that, somehow, my own aging and death weren’t possible. I remember thinking, in 1974, that the year 2016, when I would turn 60, would somehow never come, that it just couldn’t happen, something would change before that date, and yet now it’s just 3 years away.

Is all of this familiar? Or was I just an inordinately morbid 18 year old? I think the literature I taught when I was a high school English teacher is pretty clear on this, because distress about mortality is there, pervasively, in the poems, plays, novels, and stories human beings have produced—they tell us in no uncertain terms that death is a big problem for a lot of us, and that the reality of our own death makes it very, very hard for us to feel 100% happy 100% of the time, which is how we would like to feel, and how we wish life was. In fact, we’re bothered by the fact that this universe we didn’t invent or choose to live in has to be like this. Why couldn’t it be otherwise? Why isn’t reality better than it is? If there’s a God, how come He or She includes death in His or Her Creation—not to mention suffering and pain, and suffering and pain of such intensity and persistence that it seems impossible that there is indeed a Creator who is all powerful and all good? Because if the Creator of the universe is all powerful and all good, why do bad things not just happen but happen to everybody? And why is it that the ultimate bad thing, our annihilation as individuals, also happens to everybody? What kind of a God creates such a reality? Not one who is all powerful and all good, as far as we, in our limited, human way, construe those terms. Which turns a lot of us into unbelievers, quite naturally. But then what? Now what? We find ourselves afraid of the universe, because it is either the work of a God who seems inexplicable at best and malicious at worst or a place completely indifferent to us, when all we want, as I said before, is to be happy. Why does that have to be so complicated, this happiness we seek? Why does the universe seem to be a place where happiness isn’t possible? We don’t have answers. And so, from day to day we just stumble on through life, aware that it is, in its very nature, unsatisfactory, and experiencing, privately, a sense if dissatisfaction with it, and mostly at a loss regarding what to do about it. In this profoundly confused way, our lives pass, and then they end.

If you are troubled by all of this, and would rather not be asked to think about it right now, well, welcome to the human race. On the other hand, be glad, because if you’re troubled right now, than at least at this moment you’re no longer kidding yourself. For just this moment you aren’t saying to yourself, “I’ll deal with it later; right now, things are good.” Instead of kidding yourself that way, you’re looking directly at the central problem life presents, which can’t be addressed as long as you’re fleeing from it. So if you’re distressed right now by all of this talk about death and God and the universe, be glad that you’re able to feel this distress, because without it, you’d have no hope for happiness. Your distress, your dissatisfaction, is the starting place, and the earlier you acknowledge and accept it, the better. In fact, this early start is critical, because if you wait, you will only continue on the path of deepening your strategies of avoidance, and that will make it harder. So start now, if you are 18 or 80. Start today.

What do I mean by strategies of avoidance? That’s a plural—strategies of avoidance—so let me start by describing just one, a common one in our place and time. This strategy hinges on willful distraction. We wake up, remember who we are, remember where we are, recall that life is not entirely satisfactory, and then we turn on our various hand-held devices to see what is going on in the world and who is communicating with us, and when those plentiful sources of distraction are temporarily exhausted we listen to music, and when the music doesn’t entirely satisfy we play a game on our hand-held devices while listening to different music, or we read while we eat, or while going to the bathroom, or while riding on the bus, and again we have the sensation that something is wrong, that things are not entirely satisfactory, we lack 100% happiness, and so we text somebody, or look at pictures of people on Facebook, or remember that there is something we would like to buy that could use a little research, and then, when the bus stops, a person sexually attractive to us gets on and sits down, and we look up and distract ourselves from the basic problem of life by admiring them for a while, some of us getting carried away with all kinds of thoughts about that person that have nothing to do with who they are in actuality, and after a while that fades, too, and we go on to the next thing, which might be, before we look down again at the screen of our hand-held device, a visual sweep across the landscape of our fellow bus riders while indulging in a stream of critical thoughts about them, that the person there is ugly, or that the person there is obviously an idiot because if he wasn’t he wouldn’t wear what he is wearing or carry the kind of backpack he is carrying, at which point the bus is passed in the adjacent lane by a car and you turn your attention to that, you peer out the window into the car because there are 4 fellow students in it on their way to school and one of them is somebody you don’t like very much, a cheater and a jerk, and then it’s time to look at your hand-held device again, and now an hour has passed since you woke up and only once or twice, in small, unasked for lulls, were you undistracted enough to know what you were actually doing or thinking and to exercise some control over it. For years and years you’ve done this until it has become, simply, the way your brain works. The neural pathways of judgment and impatience and boredom and dissatisfaction have become deep grooves, until this manner of experiencing the world and life seems to be the only possible way. But it is, in fact, not the only way. It is instead something you have learned to do, something that with time has become so familiar to you that you may be as unaware of it as you are of your own breathing.

Many of you, young and old, are recreational marijuana users. But regarding you graduates: statistics show that about half of people your age use marijuana more than 100 times per year. In our part of the United States the rate is even higher, and in schools like Roosevelt, with a large upper middle class demographic, the rate is higher still. I say this because I think recreational marijuana use is related to the point I’m making. You become dissatisfied with the ordinary, common, familiar, and normal processes of your own mind and use marijuana in order to get away from them. You smoke, and after that your mind works differently, and it is like a respite or vacation from your ordinary mind, an interlude in which you experience the world and life and your own mind in a more satisfying way. But then, eventually, the trip is over, and you come back to your ordinary way of thinking and to the normal world, which is so boring and unsatisfactory that you feel an urge to get high again, all the while knowing that this marijuana smoking is a crutch, a little vacation or a holiday, but not really the answer to the problem of life—really, in the end, just another distraction. Some people do this with alcohol, or by taking literal vacations to places like Hawaii or Mexico, or by combining all 3, marijuana, alcohol, and a sunny beach, or by engaging in recreational activities like skiing or kayaking—all of it with a view toward experiencing life in a way more satisfying than it normally feels, and all of it undertaken with the sinking feeling that even these activities don’t really solve the problem. They’re also just distractions, like everything else, brief respites from dissatisfaction, and they don’t address the fact that by and large we are not at peace, not satisfied, and not happy.

I mentioned earlier that young people sometimes deal with this problem by having as much fun as they can now while telling themselves that distressing existential dilemmas can come later. I want to warn you that this is a recipe for disaster. The fun you are having now turns out to be not so much a temporary stay against life and death, or a delaying tactic, but a response to life and death that gradually and relentlessly tightens its grip on you, and becomes a habit, even an addiction. I also want to warn you about something else—that the society you find yourself in isn’t going to help you. It isn’t designed to help you. It isn’t a society with a spiritual or philosophical basis designed to assist you in your aspiration toward happiness. It is, in fact, designed to do the opposite. First, it teaches you that you are the most important thing in the world, and does it so well and thoroughly that you don’t even notice. This is there in the the so-called “Enlightenment” philosophy that is the underpinning of modern Western life and in our political principles and political documents—that the individual, with his or her personal goals, hopes, dreams, and aspirations, is primary and foremost. From these philosophical and political roots, the primacy of the individual has grown and spread to subsume nearly everything, and that, in the end, has not brought us happiness, because the you that matters so much every second of every day is in fact mortal and even ephemeral, and you know this, and isn’t it sad, even tragic, to know that in the end all of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations don’t amount to much, that they take you nowhere, and that this constant obsession with them is really just another form of unhappiness. To put this another way, if my life is first and foremost about me, I will never be happy.

We have another big problem when it comes to happiness in our society. While each of us is relentlessly busy chasing after his or her personal hopes and dreams, our very sophisticated modern economy is busily exploiting the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities elicited by this state of affairs. It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life. It knows that you are insecure about your appearance, for example, and in advertising it does everything it can to make you feel even worse about it, because if you feel worse about it, you will buy expensive clothing or pay a doctor to change your face. So in our society, not only do you have to be unhappy on that existential level that is just part and parcel of being human, you also have to be unhappy in ways designed for you by others, and if you are a woman or gay or a person of color, your society will make it even harder for you by tilting the playing field so you have to walk uphill, and by confounding your inner life in ways white men don’t have to face. Add to this your natural anxiety about the future—your distress about what it means that we are developing smart drones and melting the polar ice cap—and happiness begins to feel, for a lot of us, impossible. So impossible that the rate of mental illness in America, of depression in particular, is higher that it has ever been. The world might seem full of possibility, and it is that way, but it is also a place where you can very quickly find yourself among the living dead—a being without the means for happiness.

Here is something you can do about it—or something you can do to get started. Take whatever handheld device you own out of your pocket or bag and set the alarm for 2 hours for now. When it makes whatever noise you have selected for it to make, ask yourself how often during the last 2 hours you were actually in charge of your thoughts. How often was your mind just rolling along like a pack of drunken monkeys, doing whatever it wants without you having anything to say about it? How often was it busy being bored, dissatisfied, critical of others, self-absorbed, insecure, self-hating, anxious, and/or afraid? How often were you genuinely happy? And exactly at the moment your alarm makes its noise, where was your mind and what was it doing? Because in the end your mind is the one thing you have going for you when it comes to happiness. A deliberate mind, a mind that works consciously—choosing, at every turn, what you are saying, what you are doing, and what you are thinking—this is very, very hard to achieve, which is why you should start now. Cultivate those states of mind that actually produce happiness and cast out those that don’t. After a while you will find that you care much less about your own hopes and dreams and a lot more about other people. You will move in the direction of self-less-ness, which is a good thing, because if there is no self, who is it that has to die some day? There will be no one there to die. There will be no self. Die now, so you won’t have to do it later. Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom. And you can find this freedom, which we might also call happiness. Your life can open toward greater happiness and greater freedom, and it is entirely up to you to make that happen. Because in the end you have the power to do it no matter what the universe seems to be like and no matter the challenges of our place and time. You really are in charge of your own happiness. Which is, I think, both exhilarating and terrifying. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could do it for you? It’s such a daunting and important task, really the central task of life. But I urge you to work, on your own, or with the right mentors, or preferably, in both ways, as honestly and fiercely as you can on this matter of your own happiness. Don’t settle for the answers all around you that are not really answers. Don’t settle for a life of quiet desperation. And most of all, don’t settle for unhappiness. I want to tell you that happiness is possible, and that you don’t have to be despairing and afraid. But it’s up to you, to each of you, to seek out the wisdom that happiness requires. Not learning but wisdom, which is something else altogether. I wish you a long life, the better to find and deepen that wisdom. And I wish you happiness.

Whether or not it's a good speech is subjective—there are parts I like and parts I don't like—but it's thoughtful and what Guterson wanted to say. That's what the school asked for: The school invited Guterson to deliver the speech. If they wanted something else, they should have invited someone else. He doesn't seem hateful, mean, or bigoted—the sort of stuff that deserves a good booing. As I wrote earlier, I think the folks who made the error here were those trying to shut him up.

 

Comments (74) RSS

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Will in Seattle 1
Definitely too upbeat for this crowd.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on June 14, 2013 at 11:05 AM · Report this
dnt trust me 2

He opened with a joke you know.

"I've never understood date rape," he said, "I'd never date a girl after I raped her."
Posted by dnt trust me on June 14, 2013 at 11:05 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 3
Maybe you guys should embed an unpaid intern or two at the school for a few weeks so you can get the whole exciting story as it unfolds with shocking new developments.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on June 14, 2013 at 11:15 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 4
Even better than @3 you could have them take pics of the future light rail station and tell us what happened at the bike planning session there last night, and then report on how Unpaid Internships were under attack by SCOTUS and how living in debt was the preferred state of existence for young people, and how we should all love our East German Secret Police masters here in New East Germany (aka USA).
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on June 14, 2013 at 11:18 AM · Report this
TomJohnsonJr 5
Blech.
Posted by TomJohnsonJr on June 14, 2013 at 11:26 AM · Report this
6
I like it.
Posted by Foonken2 on June 14, 2013 at 11:37 AM · Report this
7
Schools would have to be lot better funded to expect teachers to have time to get around to Ernest Becker's ideas.
Posted by turnbuckle on June 14, 2013 at 11:42 AM · Report this
bleedingheartlibertarian 8
I like this, a great deal. I don't agree with every word of it, but it is really quite good.

More importantly, though, is the fact that Mr. Guterson actually addressed the graduates like adults, which is to say, he gave a frank and unfiltered account of his view on life. He respected them enough to make them uncomfortable.

Put another way: we should not be surprised when young adults act like children, if we insist on infantalizing them.
Posted by bleedingheartlibertarian on June 14, 2013 at 11:51 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 9
tldr
Posted by Matt from Denver on June 14, 2013 at 12:01 PM · Report this
Cascadian 10
I think this is mostly the truth, but he lays it on a bit too thick for the occasion. Even reading this, my mood is cast into darkness. If I was actually there, I can imagine feeling either crushed into a near-suicidal fugue, or provoked into anger that he couldn't just soften the blow a bit with a couple white lies here and there.
Posted by Cascadian on June 14, 2013 at 12:01 PM · Report this
11
A very good if discursive speech, he seemed to know how to let them out to pasture and then at the end corral them back into the barn.

For my part, I'd stick with what JFK said,

“The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on June 14, 2013 at 12:02 PM · Report this
Dougsf 12
If graduations were like shows, I'd ask what time the students are going on and show up then. Every commencement address I've been to went on waaaaaaaaaaaaay to long.

Why did some parents hate it though? Seems like a lot of shit 18-year olds could stand to think about.
Posted by Dougsf on June 14, 2013 at 12:06 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 14
So how come nothing about sunscreen?
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on June 14, 2013 at 12:12 PM · Report this
katrat 15
This is a great speech. Maybe wasted on an audience too young to be familiar with Existentialism and disappointment. I was listening to Pink Floyd's Breathe the other day and when it got to the to the part about time wasted and "no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun" it resonated SO much more than when I was their age. I would have benefited from a similar speech, but may not have really gotten it until years later.
Posted by katrat http://www.kathrynrathke.com/ on June 14, 2013 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Julie in Eugene 16
This was a good read -- I agree there were good parts and not-so-good parts. But... can you imagine listening to this as a speech? It's so dense, it would take a really talented orator to make it listenable/digestible, even to a receptive audience.
Posted by Julie in Eugene on June 14, 2013 at 12:31 PM · Report this
Just Jeff 17
Yeah. He is kind of a downer. I think I would have heckled him too.
Posted by Just Jeff on June 14, 2013 at 12:39 PM · Report this
Callie 18
It reads as a really great speech, in my opinion. The problem it seems, according to someone on the other thread who was there, was his delivery, which I think is totally understandable. Reading it in, as I guess is the only way feasible since I've never read this man's books nor heard him speak, my own voice, a lot of what he said rang very true for me now, at 31 However, depending on his delivery, I could see myself being upset to have to to listen to this on one of the happiest days of my young life so far.
Posted by Callie http://www.facebook.com/Klosetnerd on June 14, 2013 at 12:40 PM · Report this
19
He's (knowingly or not) aping David Foster Wallace's Kenyon commencement address.
Posted by melvillean http://onlinerock.com/partners/podcasts.shtml on June 14, 2013 at 12:49 PM · Report this
Mattini 21
"Everybody dies" isn't exactly groundbreaking insight. And that seems like a lot of words for a 15 minute talk.
Posted by Mattini on June 14, 2013 at 1:23 PM · Report this
22
Loved it. People rarely enjoy hearing what they need to hear, and i think this is a speech we could all have used when we were 18. Of course the Millennials' helicopter parents weren't too pumped about it, but that's no shock. Their precious little one-of-a-kind snowflake babies are all too special for any of this to apply to them. It took some stones to stand up there and deliver the truth like that and I applaud him for it. I couldn't tell you a single word my high school or college commencement speakers said, or who they were for that matter, but I bet more than a couple kids are going to remember that one.
Posted by longball on June 14, 2013 at 1:26 PM · Report this
23
Dreary and unenlightening - and a failure by raising more questions than answers. Worse, it's uninspired writing, but then you'd know that if you ever read his books.
Posted by menace2society on June 14, 2013 at 1:28 PM · Report this
24
Philistines
Posted by firewalkwithme on June 14, 2013 at 1:40 PM · Report this
Jason Josephes 25
Old man yells at cloud.
Posted by Jason Josephes http://www.myspace.com/bluemoonseattle on June 14, 2013 at 1:43 PM · Report this
Karlheinz Arschbomber 26
I bet this text works much better on the printed/displayed page than it does verbally.

But nonetheless this is pearls before swine, they want waving flags, some cheap Hallmark sentimentality. Not carefully crafted prose exposing a deeply-felt world view.

The Walmart/Costco/Comcast crowd he was addressing is not geared to absorb this material, they want little bytes, emotion-mc-nuggets.

Even if you disagree with his stance, I think it's a great text, and booing this is beyond pathetic and embarrassing.
Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arschbombe on June 14, 2013 at 2:03 PM · Report this
27
I think this is a great speech. Very reminiscent of buddhist ideas to me. Lots of truth here.
Posted by olechka on June 14, 2013 at 2:22 PM · Report this
28
Not big on paragraphs is he?
Posted by j-lon on June 14, 2013 at 2:47 PM · Report this
Unregistered User 29
How is this dreary, a downer, or depressing? Maybe if he said "life sucks and then you die and there's nothing you can do about it" but it's about empowering yourself to not be like that. If he'd quit halfway through, then it would've been dreary.
Posted by Unregistered User on June 14, 2013 at 2:59 PM · Report this
schmacky 30
I find this speech to be entirely too dismissive of the world around us. It essentially says happiness cannot be achieved externally, only internally. I submit it's a mixture of both. But regardless of my own thoughts about the merits of his mini-treatise, it's a profoundly misguided way to try and communicate with young people who, for the most part, are decades away from developing the perspective necessary to hear and understand what he's saying here.
Posted by schmacky on June 14, 2013 at 3:25 PM · Report this
32
I'm with 15. This is a great speech. Probably over the heads of 18-year-olds, although they'll think of it years later and be so glad to have had it in their heads that whole time.
Posted by Christopher Frizzelle on June 14, 2013 at 3:45 PM · Report this
emma's bee 33
@15: exactly. Not too young at all. Surely they must have been exposed to some Sartre or Camus in their AP English classes? I think this is a speech that would have resonated with me as a death-obsessed youngster. For me, a career in environmental and public health science proved a fitting venue to quell the existential angst (so far, at least).
Posted by emma's bee on June 14, 2013 at 4:13 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 34
@33,

Unless this was some sort of special graduation ceremony for exceptional students only, I can assure you that the vast majority of the kids there had zero exposure to Sartre or Camus, or any philosophy. I took AP/Honors courses throughout high school, and I read neither until I reached college.
Posted by keshmeshi on June 14, 2013 at 4:23 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 35
@26 I doubt there were many Walmart people there. This is RHS.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on June 14, 2013 at 4:25 PM · Report this
37
This is a great fucking speech and I wish I had heard it when I was 18 and taken it to heart, although it is impossible to do and I would have thought he was a shit talker just like all the folks in the audience and ignored him derisively.
Posted by PanWhale on June 14, 2013 at 4:35 PM · Report this
38
I was there and agree with parts of posts 10, 21, 23, 30. Reading it on paper is different from experiencing it. Dismissing the audience as materialistic, "generation-yuppie" Costco members is too easy and intellectually self righteous. This was an audience for the most part of progressive, intelligent graduates of the class of 2013 and their equally progressive, intelligent and open-minded parents. While only a few heckled, I'm certain all understood why there were hecklers. I didn't heckle and the heckling made an extremely awkward speech even more awkward. However, less than 5minutes into planned 15 minute speech that was actually a 25minute ramble, we all wanted it to end.

Re-reading the paper version coupled with my memory of the delivery doesn't make me second-guess my reaction at all. Two friends of mine attended, and we are all voracious readers, progressive, open-minded and with about 25 years of post-secondary education all of us with advanced degrees. All of us thought the speech missed on multiple marks, was inappropriate and were more critical of the speech than the unfortunate heckling.

Maybe there is no recipe or formula for graduation speeches. However, I think speakers should accept an invitation with the responsibility to try to inspire and motivate the graduates in positive ways, for example to find happiness by contributing to the good of the world and humanity above self; paraphrasing President Kennedy, happiness is asking "not what the world can do for you but what you can do for the world." At best Guterson's organizing and delivery of his speech failed. At worst his topic failed too. It's always a gamble for the people choosing the speaker; they have no way of knowing what they will get. I felt bad for the graduates and the committee that selected him to speak.
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Posted by JB-62 on June 14, 2013 at 4:37 PM · Report this
39
His crime is being honest, serious and a bit too focused on his own shit
Posted by msread on June 14, 2013 at 5:29 PM · Report this
40
His ramble reads like a bright, obsessive, self involved depressed person with a captive audience. "Let me tell you how to find meaning and purpose." His message is framed with such negativity that listeners get worn out tracking on his rant. There are more positive, affirmative ways to deliver insightful reflective advice to graduating students. Too bad he didn't try a "coaching" perspective.
Posted by Lakehouse on June 14, 2013 at 6:14 PM · Report this
41
Half of my class was only 17 and we were so hungover that this would have just put folks to sleep. Did I mention that there was a 1,000 students in my class? Handing out diplomas took forever. I have no idea who the guest speaker was or said.
Posted by uptown on June 14, 2013 at 6:26 PM · Report this
43
I like it! I bet it was hilarious to see everyone get all uncomfortable. It's still a good graduation speech.
Posted by Capt420 on June 14, 2013 at 8:05 PM · Report this
44
What really is the point of a diatribe that is often negative and cautionary and does not hide its relationship to the author's insecurities. Perhaps there were pearls of wisdom that could be gleaned amid the pomp and crankiness. But at what cost?

Why do we think we need to remind the students of the perils of life with grim tales and common core assessments on genocide. Even within his tale of woe there were inaccuracies. While the Enlightenment did focus on individual liberties it also focused on the good of the "assembled People" and "assemblies of citizens" brought together for the greater good.

It does get hopeful at the end but we all know that the path to freedom and happiness may be better paved by words of encouragement and hope and not the images of an ominous world and a possible desperate existence hoisted on the students by a man with such grievous demons

Jack

Posted by Hoodoo99 on June 14, 2013 at 8:42 PM · Report this
45
As a member of the RHS class of 2013 I can say that, while I appreciated the speech from an intellectual perspective, I found it inappropriate for the occasion. Many of Guterson's ideas rang true to me personally and after reading the speech here I find it very interesting indeed. However you would have had to be sitting there along with every cap and gown wearing student to fully understand the cause of the heckling. The event represented a culmination of all our high school achievements and a celebration of the fact that we were moving out of our parents' arms into the the first phase of adulthood. Many of us had relatives who had flown many miles to experience this moment with us and our families. There were balloons, banners, and cheers just like you would find at any such event. From the moment Guterson stepped onto the stage he put an enormous rain cloud over the entire ceremony. He spoke in a dark and depressing monotone. His humor was undercut by the morbid and uninspired tone. When I heard the audience start booing and taunting I put my head in my hands, hoping that the awkwardness would end as soon as possible. His wisdom was drowned by the overall sense of discomfort and displeasure that had started to seep through the entire audience. When he started speaking about a malicious God I thought of all the religious members of the audience who came to celebrate their children and were instead given a condemnation of their spiritual beliefs. People had not come to this event to be challenged, they did not come to this event for intellectual discussion, they were not prepared to think about death and their own mortality. They were all there to celebrate and enjoy this moment of life, unhindered by questions concerning the ultimate dissatisfaction. I wish Guterson could have respected that.
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Posted by dmetz on June 14, 2013 at 9:12 PM · Report this
46
dmetz has it down exactly. Two words. Inappropriate / self-indulgent.
Posted by toxicfreepolitics on June 14, 2013 at 9:56 PM · Report this
47
"But nonetheless this is pearls before swine, they want waving flags, some cheap Hallmark sentimentality. Not carefully crafted prose exposing a deeply-felt world view.

The Walmart/Costco/Comcast crowd he was addressing is not geared to absorb this material, they want little bytes, emotion-mc-nuggets."

I was the student who stood up and shouted him down. I did not want platitudes from my commencement speech, but neither did I want 20 minutes of sustained criticism, unwanted assumption, and judgement about me and the way I live my life. I felt attacked. I understand why he delivered this speech - it was bold of him to spend this time on something truly deep rather than, as you say, hallmark platitudes, but the emotional assault was intense. I responded on a visceral level.
Posted by rng on June 14, 2013 at 10:29 PM · Report this
49
Unfortunately, the speech was devoid of understanding that sin largely determines our thoughts every minute of every day. That is, unless one acknowledges their sin and surrenders their will to Jesus. Only He can forgive and help us to repent. Only He can transform us from within and change the way we think fundamentally. This inner transformation provides for a true sense of peace and hope and turns us from selfish individualists to selfless servants of Christ. It's a difficult transformation to be sure, but it really isn't about "happiness". It is, however, about our intrinsic value to this world because of who God is, not allowing ourselves to be defined by our material possessions, our job, our net worth, our beauty, etc.

This is the hope that eludes the speaker, which is sad.
Posted by Random_acct on June 14, 2013 at 11:35 PM · Report this
50
Unfortunately, the speech was devoid of understanding that sin largely determines our thoughts every minute of every day. That is, unless one acknowledges their sin and surrenders their will to Jesus. Only He can forgive and help us to repent. Only He can transform us from within and change the way we think fundamentally. This inner transformation provides for a true sense of peace and hope and turns us from selfish individualists to selfless servants of Christ. It's a difficult transformation to be sure, but it really isn't about "happiness". It is, however, about our intrinsic value to this world because of who God is, not allowing ourselves to be defined by our material possessions, our job, our net worth, our beauty, etc.

This is the hope that eludes the speaker, which is sad.
Posted by Random_acct on June 14, 2013 at 11:39 PM · Report this
51
We were there and all felt it was a speech with a great deal of value.
As Dr Scott Peck said in The Road Less Traveled; "Life is difficult" and the sooner we accept this the better our chance is for a happier life. He asked the class of 2013 to wake up and get in touch with your thoughts, not the thoughts and dreams of others.

My child and her senior class listened well. Impatient probably uneducated and distracted parents were unable to sit for a few minutes and listen respectfully. A sad commentary.
Posted by Francesca on June 14, 2013 at 11:42 PM · Report this
52
I'll also chime in as one of the RHS '13ers who experienced the speech firsthand. I very much admire that Guterson told us what he believed we most needed, and perhaps deserved, to hear, even if it meant not placating the raucous (and probably inebriated) parents that heckled him. It was certainly unorthodox as far as commencement speeches go, and he did pose some pretty "heavy" (though valid) points that I'm sure made some people understandably uncomfortable. At times, Guterson may have come off as overly-aggressive in this respect, and I think that's where he garnered a lot of this blown-up negativity towards his speech. (I'm not at all religious, but even I was a bit taken aback by his snippet about a Creator. Some people mistakenly took it as preachy.) Regardless, Guterson very clearly came into the speech with the intention of reaching out intellectually to the students (!) he was addressing, and he did so brazenly. His speech resonated with me, as did his honesty. Was his tone a bit off for such an otherwise pleasant evening? Maybe, but the guy writes novels for a living, not speeches; I can cut him some slack there.
Posted by 013throwaway on June 15, 2013 at 12:49 AM · Report this
53
Several of the other speakers at the event mentioned the strength of "community" at RHS; as a parent in the grandstands I found myself happily swept-up in the idea that the RHS community is really something special. But the heckling gives the lie to this. How can community be strong when an invited speaker is shouted-down just because the message was not entirely uplifting? There’s no tolerance for unhappy truths or diverse points of view here – this is a crowd, not a community.
Posted by what I will be I am now becoming on June 15, 2013 at 1:15 AM · Report this
55
Too long winded/repetitious for a commencement speech, he needed a good editor. That said, in many ways it is incomplete: he left out the "On the other hand..." type of comments--often personal and humorous--that relate to particular events that the graduating class experienced while students, as well. In many ways, this reads like a book review or in part an NA or AA self-help session...
Posted by Classof74 on June 15, 2013 at 8:03 AM · Report this
56
There is happiness!
And we can attain it in this life!
Happy is that people whose God is the Lord. I invite you to try Him and who will find happiness for time and throughout eternity……….I dare you!
Posted by passing through on June 15, 2013 at 8:23 AM · Report this
Karlheinz Arschbomber 57
@45 - People who believe in talking carpets, magic beans and the rest of that God stuff deserve disrespect. They are delusional, and are the cause of much of the social distress on the planet, certainly in this country. Assertion-based reality is destructive, and causes people to yell when they hear something they don't want to hear.
Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arschbombe on June 15, 2013 at 9:47 AM · Report this
undead ayn rand 59
@23: "a failure by raising more questions than answers"

The sort of intellectually incurious who heckle, I see.

Life is a series of questions that raise more questions. Anyone who can encourage someone else to think more and decide they know all less is entirely more useful to this world than you.
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 15, 2013 at 12:15 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 60
Speaking of hecklers, Patton Owsalt absolutely KILLED in this essay about joke-stealing, heckling, and rape jokes.

http://www.pattonoswalt.com/index.cfm?pa…
Posted by undead ayn rand on June 15, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
61
Well this says a lot about the Roosevelt crowd, or wait, community. Which is it really? Maybe next year they can invite Justin Beiber; his messages may hit closer to home.
Posted by pragmatic mama on June 15, 2013 at 12:39 PM · Report this
62
Well this says a lot about the Roosevelt crowd, or wait, community. Which is it really? Maybe next year they can invite Justin Beiber; his messages may hit closer to home
Posted by pragmatic mama on June 15, 2013 at 12:43 PM · Report this
Splabman 64
@38 For a person with an "advanced degree" your critique of the speech is quite vague. What I read in here is that we, as individuals, need to think beyond ourselves, that this materialistic culture stacks things against us and that we can transcend all this and really be happy. I'm sure if he included his specific path to happiness, he'd be criticized for that too, but it seems to have a lot in common with Buddhism. That he was heckled by others, including parents seeking something upbeat ("inspire and motivate') in "progressive" Seattle is unsurprising. Like Willie Smith being heckled at Bumbershoot reading his story "Spiderfuck" after he killed with it at Naropa. This is the same consciousness as political correctness and it's a poor substitute for critical thinking. THAT is what he was trying to get students to do (& parents as well.) Good for him. When we take responsibility for everything that happens to us, it leads to the path of real freedom and happiness. As for the alleged failure of his speech, when's the last time a high school commencement speech got this kind of attention?
Posted by Splabman http://www.AmericanSentences.com on June 15, 2013 at 8:49 PM · Report this
65
Just as the Buddha taught:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_…
Posted by seattletimebandit on June 16, 2013 at 8:43 AM · Report this
66
Just as the Buddha taught:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_…
Posted by seattletimebandit on June 16, 2013 at 8:45 AM · Report this
67
*sorry about the double post...
Posted by seattletimebandit on June 16, 2013 at 9:21 AM · Report this
Posted by theartofrain on June 17, 2013 at 8:11 AM · Report this
GhostDog 72
The problem with this speech, for me, is that it it really is for a different audience.

I have heard very similar, almost identical, presentations in Buddhist circles. The difference is that the audience has, at a minimum, a year of consistent meditation practice, and has around 100 hours of study(usually under a teacher).

In traditional Tibetan practice, you would have around 1500 hours of preliminary practice just to start studying this stuff.

For me, this speech was like a quantum physicist talking about cutting edge theory(with full jargon and math) to a high school physics class.
Posted by GhostDog on June 17, 2013 at 10:39 AM · Report this
73
It's great because it's the truth.
Posted by mporter on June 17, 2013 at 12:22 PM · Report this
74
While he makes a couple of important points, this is a self-absorbed, rambling speech which basically asks people not to think so much of themselves and to be more intentional. Perhaps he was trying to be ironic.
Posted by not a professional on June 17, 2013 at 3:28 PM · Report this
75
In reading this, it's a very thought provoking speech. I can understand that it was not well received. I think the speaker fails to acknowledge that society and culture have places for ceremony and celebration. Commencement is one such place and the speaker fails to tune his message to that occasion.

This speech caused me to recall a commencement speech that answers some of this speaker's contentions from a place of optimism. That was the 1994 commencement address of then Vice-President Al Gore to the graduating class of Harvard University.

http://clinton2.nara.gov/WH/EOP/OVP/spee…

or video:

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/57692…
Posted by Patroclus on June 17, 2013 at 4:51 PM · Report this
77
I would have loved to have been there. I think it took courage to present thoughts and ideas such as he did. I can't think of a better definition for the word commencement than what was proposed by Guterson.
Congratulations to those that didn't boo and actually listened.
Posted by CHRYSTOPHER HANSEN on June 17, 2013 at 6:54 PM · Report this
78
Now I don't want to here anymore about that so-called "global warming"! Hoot! It's just a myth made up by them librils trying to raise my taxes! And now they're saying the automobile causes global warming? The automobile? First they came for my guns. Then they came for my clam gun and made me pay a fee! Now those librils want to take away my car! Am I supposed to ride PUBLIC transportation? Ride the shame train with the poors? Have you ever seen Al Gore on a bus? He's fat! He lives in a mansion with a big electric bill and he drives an SUV. Libril hypocrisy! Libril hypocrisy! And don't give me any of that so-called "science" elitism either. When it comes to that so-called "global warming" there are plenty of real scientists who disagree. I saw it on the teevee!
Posted by realoldguy on June 17, 2013 at 10:07 PM · Report this
79
I agree with those who thought the speech to be self-indulgent and unsuited to the occasion. "Schmacky" and "mattini" have especially good points. The fact that everyone dies is not especially enlightening.
But most importantly, a man approaching 60, newly wary of his imminent old age, has no place telling 18-year-olds (or anyone) what will or will not make them happy. Travel, for example: escapism, sure? But plenty of people find it more fulfilling than siting around moping about death.
As a 22-year-old who has had more than enough mortality and sadness to deal with from a young age, I think that everyone must come to terms with their own death and happiness on their own terms and at the right time. We all live different lives and we all find our own ways to be happy. Guterson, please don't force the product of your years of self-examination upon others.
Those with whom this speech's philosophy might resonate are also those who don't need it and might be upset by emotions it brings up, having already gone through such introspection and/or depression. (keep in mind also that the onset of mental illness such as depression and schizophrenia often occurs around the late teens/early 20s, so if his ramblings have actually affected students, he can't have helped..)
Guterson is indeed far to dismissive of the world and all it has to offer-he sounds like a depressed, ascetic, regretful, monk-like dude.
As deserved as the booing might have been, though, it was rather uncivilized and not to be condoned.
Posted by mmbt on June 18, 2013 at 1:06 AM · Report this
80
*that 'to' was meant to be 'too,' as in, "too dismissive of the world."
Posted by mmbt on June 18, 2013 at 1:10 AM · Report this
dwightmoodyforgetsthings 82
@79 "But most importantly, a man approaching 60, newly wary of his imminent old age, has no place telling 18-year-olds (or anyone) what will or will not make them happy."

Yet this is what happens at almost every graduation ceremony in America.
Posted by dwightmoodyforgetsthings http://www.reddit.com/r/spaceclop on June 18, 2013 at 6:11 PM · Report this
83
I was there for this speech though I wasn't graduating. It wasn't particularly dense or unintelligible nor did I find it to be overwhelmingly depressing. However, it was depressing and one of the graduaties (I'm not convinced that that is a word) shouted "You don't know us!" Which drew an... Interesting response. I loved the speech, I thought it had the potential to be very moving to a few in the crowd who felt as though they were stuck in depression. The speech was depressing for those that went in as happy and eager graduaties but those were not the target of the speech, the speech was targeted at the people for whom the standard graduation speech would be depressing and scary, for those that can't seem to escape life. I, personally thought it was the most effective graduation speech.

The man was not a public speaker and didn't know how to draw in a crowd but he also didn't make it dry and unintelligible. Everyone knew what he was saying.
Posted by FroColin on June 18, 2013 at 8:07 PM · Report this
84
I spoke with a friend today, telling her that I'd like to read the entire speech. I wish I would have been there to hear it as well. As we know, the written word and spoken word can be two quite different things. I wouldn't expect him to be a phenomenal public speaker. In fact, if he were an unpolished public speaker - it might be an asset to the content. I like the speech, but my perspective is from the foundation of someone who is 46 years old. Seattle often is seen as a smart, well-mannered and inclusive place that appreciates all sorts of diversity. Just listen. Think. Observe. Be. Sounds like those ideas may have threatened some in the crowd.
Posted by LukeChicago on June 18, 2013 at 8:21 PM · Report this
85
I spoke with a friend today, telling her that I'd like to read the entire speech. I wish I would have been there to hear it as well. As we know, the written word and spoken word can be two quite different things. I wouldn't expect him to be a phenomenal public speaker. In fact, if he were an unpolished public speaker - it might be an asset to the content. I like the speech, but my perspective is from the foundation of someone who is 46 years old. Seattle often is seen as a smart, well-mannered and inclusive place that appreciates all sorts of diversity. Just listen. Think. Observe. Be. Sounds like those ideas may have threatened some in the crowd.
Posted by LukeChicago on June 18, 2013 at 8:24 PM · Report this
86
Speaking truth to power is courageous and necessary in situations of oppression. But when one is not speaking to entrenched power, when one is speaking person to person, reflecting on the complex mystery we call being human, truth is more effective when used not as a weapon of assault, but as an invitation to expand the heart beyond itself toward the other.

I was in the audience last Wednesday night. It taught me that the art of rhetoric is ancient but not moribund, and we cannot afford to ignore it, no matter how “true” and hard-won our insights might be. Consider these six true statements and their impact on their audience:

1. David Guterson, Roosevelt High School Graduation 2013:

“So if you’re distressed right now by all of this talk about death and God and the universe, be glad that you’re able to feel this distress, because without it, you’d have no hope for happiness. Your distress, your dissatisfaction, is the starting place, and the earlier you acknowledge and accept it, the better.” “And most of all, don’t settle for unhappiness. I want to tell you that happiness is possible, and that you don’t have to be despairing and afraid. But it’s up to you, to each of you, to seek out the wisdom that happiness requires. Not learning but wisdom, which is something else altogether.”

2. Roosevelt graduate at Guterson’s address, impolitely interrupting Guterson, true, but nevertheless speaking with amazing respect, courage, and poignancy: “You don’t know anything about us.”

3. David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College, 2005: “But if you really learn how

to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.”

4. “Die before you die.” Muhammad, but also Jesus, Buddha, Rabia, and many, many other mystics, from all traditions, speaking to seasoned selves, fully developed egos, of the necessary death of the ego or little self to open in compassion and love.

5. Emily, a teenager, at her mother’s funeral: “My mother taught me that ‘happiness is not the goal, it’s the way.’”

6. Proverb from a Hindu saint: “The highest form of worship is simply to be happy.”

I know which ones of these six truth-talkers I would gladly listen to for hours to grow in wisdom.
More...
Posted by What's all the fuss? on June 18, 2013 at 9:30 PM · Report this
87
Apart from the tone and subject matter of the speech, it actually reads as rather longwinded and repetitive. While I don't agree with heckling -- especially directed at a guest speaker -- I'm not surprised it happened. Guterson is also apparently terrible with kids and a nightmare as a teacher.
Posted by Amanda on June 19, 2013 at 3:09 AM · Report this
89
"Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand."
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Posted by desertwalker on June 22, 2013 at 9:59 PM · Report this

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