Masters of Reality

I’m not normally one thrilled by public speaking, but for some reason, the idea of giving a commencement speech has a certain allure that would cause any anxiety to melt away in a heartbeat. Alas, that day will have to wait until I’m famous and one of my alma maters invites me back. Perhaps fittingly, I’ll settle for a written version. This has been percolating since last December, and now it’s time to share some collected thoughts from my nineteen years in school, which come to an end this weekend.

Masters of Reality

Hey, we’re done. We did it. We finished graduate school. Now what the hell did we just do for the past few years?

Hard to say. What’s a graduate degree for, anyway? A credential to help us up a job ladder, and little more? On the most cynical of days, when I plowed through some of my less inspiring papers or group projects, it was hard to think otherwise. A pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and nothing more? Spare me. In my own wing of our dear modernist mecca on the Mississippi, the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program, there’s even a common complaint that we don’t get nearly enough practical skills, to the point where I had to suppress a laugh when the first question in a recent job interview asked about my experience reading zoning code. Instead, we get taught how to think, whatever that means. I eat this up, but it’s such a fluffy description that it can crumble under the duress of yet another slog through a group project.

This is a public affairs school, so this means there must be some sort of overarching vision…though anyone who took Intro to Planning with Ryan Allen probably isn’t sure how to define the public good anymore anyway. Still, there are frequent nods underlying mission here, one rife with clichés about public service and human progress and peace and justice for all. To find the most eloquent flavor of this take that’s weighed on me over the past few months, I’m going to commit a Humphrey School sacrilege and quote one of Hubert’s rivals for the 1968 Democratic nomination, Robert F. Kennedy. RFK’s words to an Indianapolis crowd on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination laid out a simple mission in the shadow of death: “Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

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1968 might have been the messiest year in American politics this side of the Civil War, but 2016 could be a contender before all is said and done. We’re graduating into a world where reality doesn’t quite cooperate by the rules we’ve tried to impose on it in our studies. Theories of international politics and democratic order that I learned as an undergraduate have never seemed so tenuous. Political upheaval has come to this country in a presidential campaign that shreds all our political niceties and assumptions of proper decorum, and it strikes home here in Minneapolis, where, in the past year, we’ve had glimpses behind our façade of Minnesota Niceness and found a community with rifts we still need to heal.

Moments like this are a reminder of how tenuous our quest for knowledge can be, how all our careful efforts to catalogue each event before us and filter it through our rational methods never quite manage to capture everything. It makes us realize how radical RFK’s project was. Humans are savage creatures, capable of falling to great depths in craven, base lusts for power, and even a constitution with the most meticulous checks and balances may not guarantee any sanity. A master’s in public affairs can only tame so much. The very name of the degree seems oddly archaic, suggests this piece of paper gives us a right to own or at least control other people: what exactly have we mastered, anyway?

As master’s students, we sit around and argue and opine from on high; not that we didn’t do these things already, but hopefully we’re a little better at it now. We learn our history, though there’s little consolation in recounting past failures to ease our inhumanity and bend history toward justice, whatever that might look like. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and we risk that moment of sheer terror when we realize how small and clueless we are.

And so we find ourselves part of a generation mugged by reality, forced to confront an uncertain world where we don’t have easy answers. And it doesn’t get any easier. We endure tragedy, and before long, none of us are young anymore, marked by a string of steady losses and shocks, some grand and political; the most jarring, deeply personal. It is in these darkest hours when we are often at our most human, our most able to be honest with those around us and hone in on what we truly value. Pain and suffering prove necessary steps along the road to excellence.

So much of freedom, you see, is a myth. We’re forever bounded by who we are and where we come from, and the days of fundamental change are probably gone: we can only become more and more our true selves. But we do have the power to author our stories, to pull all these scattered events that happen to us into a narrative, give it a trajectory that pushes us toward some yet unseen end. We can choose whether we’re tragic heroes or triumphant survivors, whether we drown in hubris or rise up in humility.

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Knowledge of this choice requires a rare self-awareness. It requires us to take a step back and assess the whole story, either in a salon of trusted confidantes or alone with one’s mind in the dark of night. This isn’t a skill anyone has innately; it’s something we have to cultivate carefully, time and again, to be able to crawl out of the ongoing string of nothing to remember why it is we do what we do. At times we endure long tunnels of darkness of the soul, or at the very least of a Humphrey computer lab, but it’s all worth it for those little glimmers of light, those little moments of wonder or awe that give life its driving force.

And so the great benefit of this broad education is the power to stop and process everything. It is the ability to recognize these narratives and impose a small dose of mastery, however brief it may be. And if we take that imperative seriously, follow it to its furthest conclusion, it presents a great burden. Every certainty comes under scrutiny, and every last object of worship threatens to fall away. We’re forced to confront our most unsettling worries, and it can bring out the best and the worst in us, depending on how we respond. Down here, we see how our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses so often stem from the same source.

The trouble is, for all of this human drama, few will care what we wrestle with. Any inner turmoil isn’t of much interest beyond our inner circle, and the Humphrey, for all its strengths, doesn’t always set up easy dialogue outside of that circle. The question of our time is how we respond in a world of indifference, and in one where we resort to grabbing attention by the cheapest of means: knee-jerk righteous anger, 140 characters, and snarky dismissal. Delicious as these may be, they are always shortcuts, never quite able to admit nuance or submit to the vulnerability of knowing that, no matter how far we reach, we will never know all the answers. We all have our blind spots, must take our leaps of faith, and none of us can truly master it all.

The diversity of human experience is too great, and if we stop to appreciate the extent of that diversity, we understand just how hard it is to bring people together into some sort of community. It’s so hard because it should be: even people from fairly similar backgrounds come to radically different outlooks, and no amount of imposed education will produce the same worldview. Sobering, perhaps, but maybe a source of hope: it’s all still a mystery, and mystery begets curiosity, an endless, restless search. And as this search continues, we must always cling to that sense of wonder, even amid the daily tides of tiring monotony that come in reliably every day. This wonder takes commitment, and with commitment and love poured into people or a cause, there is always the risk of further heartbreak and pain.

We must choose carefully, make sure those ends to which we direct our lives are worth the faith we place in them. We have a narrative; we might not be able to explain exactly where we’re going, but we need some idea of how to get there, and why everyone else should come along for the ride. If we urban planners can contribute something, it is a scale on which we can think about starting our efforts: right here, in our most immediate communities, where we can know the details intimately and have the power to turn vague wishes into concrete action. Grounded, we’re free to plot out our dives into the arena in search for moments of glory.

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I’m reminded of a line from Rollo May: the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. To resist that apathy is not just one option among many, but an imperative, one that requires a moral courage to claim that, in our wanderings, we’ve found something to live for. And while those dreams and ideals help frame our work, no abstraction can substitute for what we learn from living in and among the people closest to us, entranced by the whole spectacle. Instead of living a dream, live reality: realize that what we have before us is all we’ve got, and it’s up to us to take that history we’ve lived and turn it into something coherent, to blend all those disparate threads into one. Somewhere in here lies the mastery of reality, as best we fallible humans can achieve it.

And so we head forth to pursue it. This can’t be a burden, something we do out of some resigned sense of duty. We must do it with panache, with a joie de vivre that fuels the fire through the tremendous barriers we confront and the thousand insidious, nagging bites that drag us down, day by day. Life is not about balance. Balance implies stasis, a resting place; life is instead a constant flow in among any number of streams that pull us along, tugging this way and that and leading us down toward whatever destiny may await. We will waver on our way, and at times it will be anything but tame. Mastery cannot mean an imposition of control, but instead only momentary escapes, and in the times when we don’t have that lucidity, a knowledge of how to ride the waves, catch the swells and surge and retreat as we see fit.

How do we do that? I can’t see far into the future, but right now, it all seems simple enough. It’s time to bring these grandiose words to a close and head out into a beautiful Minnesota spring, to spend time with family and friends and revel in what we’ve done over these past few years. And then, renewed, we can head forth and leave our marks on reality as we see fit. We’ve finished countless assignments over the past few years, but our real work is only beginning.

This Is Water

The Georgetown University Class of 2013 is currently being rained upon on Healy Lawn, listening to a series of commencement speakers who are about to release them into the world after college. This means I’m one year removed from my own graduation, so it seems like a fitting time to reflect on the greatest commencement speech I’ve ever read: David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon College. I’m hardly alone in lauding this one—this partial video of it went viral recently—but I’m not terribly snobbish about this sort of thing, and I suppose it isn’t surprising that people who actually care about commencement addresses often value the same thing.

Here’s a transcript of the full text:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

I first read this a few years ago, but had forgotten it somewhat until last month. Ever since, I cannot count the number of times I’ve repeated that mantra. This is water. This is water. It really isn’t possible to be forever aware of the water around us—and there is such a thing as too much awareness—but Wallace (hereafter ‘DFW’) is dead-on when he notes that blind consideration of our own interests is our default setting.

In my reading, the climax of the piece is here:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. 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.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

DFW goes on to say that worshipping the divine probably makes the most sense, given the fallibility of everything else. Since I don’t have a particularly rosy view of human nature, I’d certainly agree; the problem here—as most any devout believer will probably tell you—is that logical arguments for faith aren’t especially convincing. Sure, they might sound lovely, but to true belief requires some sort of leap into surrender before a deity or some other supernatural realm. This is a leap many people are quite unwilling to take, including many people who consider themselves religious: acknowledging a God is one thing, but submitting to the teachings of faith as a serious code for life is an entirely different matter. It is also one of my own biggest stumbling blocks: a few fairly minor things aside, I haven’t really chosen to worship anything yet. I take pride in my skepticism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of its downsides. Freedom always has a price.

And DFW is dead-on in his definition of freedom. The freedom we so desperately seek does not come from liberties enshrined in some constitution, though the two can be related. Freedom comes from awareness; from having the wherewithal to embrace our surroundings as they are and find our niche within them. This does not mean blind compliance; instead, I think it means something akin to the old Reinhold Niebuhr prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and its various offshoots—‘God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ That wisdom is freedom. (Though I do have something of a beef with the second clause; surely not everything that we have the power to change should be changed!) It’s all a bit vague, but freedom’s power may be in its vagueness; it isn’t something we pin down, but something we feel.

Looming over this address, of course, is the knowledge that this incredibly insightful man took his own life just three years later. DFW had his mental issues, certainly, but it makes one wonder when he forgot what water was, or if the depth of his mind somehow overwhelmed him. The task is, as he says, “unimaginably hard.” But with the right grounding, with the right object of worship, it is all worth it.

So congratulations, Georgetown Class of 2013, and all of the other graduates who are on their way off to some other stage of their lives. Finding myself largely in the same place I was at this point a year ago, it’s time for me to head out into the world again, too.

But, of course, I cannot forget.

This is water. This is water.