This just came up on Browbeat, and I’m not going to say Whedon tops Colbert or Rowling or Foster Wallace, he doesn’t. But, again, his knack for speaking candidly (does he ever even look down?) on conflicted selfhood, in a 13-minute speech, beginning with a Robert Frost-Bill Cosby joke, and the line: “You are all going to die?” And bringing it home? It’s skillful, and natural. Yes, the humanist themes are still there, the unifying “tension” that “brings us all together.” But there are more than a few highlights, of which I will quote below the speech. Whedon contrasts the youthful simplicity of ambitions, ideas, romance, with the realities of complications, of inner-dissent, of a bifurcated will. He says that, even anatomically, our selves are moving us toward the end that our minds will not accept. And he urges the Wesleyan class to yield to that conflict. This is true identity, he says, to see and understand one’s self in all the complexities and contradictions that are there.
On self-contradiction and yielding to “the voices”:
But first let me say when I talk about contradiction, I’m talking about something that is a constant in your life and in your identity, not just in your body but in your own mind, in ways that you may recognize or you may not.
Let’s just say, hypothetically, that two roads diverged in the woods and you took the path less traveled. Part of you is just going, “Look at that path! Over there, it’s much better. Everyone is traveling on it. It’s paved, and there’s like a Starbucks every 40 yards. This is wrong. In this one, there’s nettles and Robert Frost’s body—somebody should have moved that—it just feels weird. And not only does your mind tell you this, it is on that other path, it is behaving as though it is on that path. It is doing the opposite of what you are doing. And for your entire life, you will be doing, on some level, the opposite—not only of what you were doing—but of what you think you are. That is just going to go on. What you do with all your heart, you will do the opposite of. And what you need to do is to honor that, to understand it, to unearth it, to listen to this other voice.
I talk about this contradiction, and this tension, there’s two things I want to say about it. One, it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.
And a weirdly (and refreshingly) passive take on world-changing language:
So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before.
And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are—not in a clichéd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense—the future. After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just be yourself. Be all of your selves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.”
He gets a little hippy-dippy there at the end, but I think I get where he’s coming from. He’s coming back around the complexities of one’s self, of the life that is inextricable from death, of the identity that is strung up to all of the identities we try on and manufacture and coerce–he’s inviting the graduates to open their eyes to it, to be mindful of it–and the freedom that comes in that form of acceptance.