Friday, June 05, 2009

Graduation 09

(News0-Herald, June 4) I am a fan of Occasions. I think we are in danger of seeing every event as entertainment, but being entertained is not the highest goal humans can have.
Weddings, funerals, baptisms—nobody should walk out of these Occasions discussing if it was fun, amusing or entertaining. People should be moved, humbled, inspired, excited, saddened, touched by some sense of deeper human truths and beauty that surface in these moments.
Each of these should come wrapped in a Sense of Occasion, a series of cues that help us understand that we are witnessing a moment that is special, illuminating, a reminder of the grand trajectory of human life. That’s why we dress up, decorate, observe ceremonial acts that we can’t even explain.
Graduation is one of those Occasions. Why a funny hat and goofy gown? Why a long walk set to old music? Because they help create a Sense of Occasion. Our local graduates hear a lot of language about this big moment, this great transition, this complete change in their lives, and I believe wholeheartedly that every one of these homilies is true.
But I don’t think that’s the thing to remember.
Big Occasions are important, and it is right that we should honor them. But focusing on them too much leads some folks to imagine that these Big Occasions are sparkling islands surrounded by vast, flat, changeless seas.
We humans take comfort in routine, in the belief that between Big Occasions, things are Usually This Way or Always That Way. It’s just not true. I could talk about what I “always” do at Christmas. But I have only seen fifty-two Christmas’s and each one was different.
If you aren’t around teenagers, it’s easy to forget how quickly things change, how completely different ninth grade is from twelfth grade. Yes, the commencement ceremony marks a big change in their lives, but so has every single year leading up to graduation.
Decades ago in his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler argued that too much change too quickly throws humans into a bit of an anxious tizzy, and I suppose he has a point. It may be comforting to believe that we are fairly stable people passing through a frozen and unchanging landscape.
It’s just not true. We are changing daily. The people around us are changing daily. The world around us is changing daily.
The advent of the oil industry created upheaval and disruption on the world. Whalers, once as much a part of America as apple pie and amber waves of grain, were thrown out of work. Later on, the invention of pipelines created a new industry and ravaged an old one.
The oil industry itself has never stood still. Pick any moment in its history—things were getting better or getting worse or some fundamental of the industry was changing forever.
When people make the oft-repeated comment that Venangoland must be revived by returning to the industry of yesteryear, I wonder exactly which year they mean. Do they want to return to a point when things were bad but getting better? When things were great but soon to turn sour? You can talk about the way things Always Were, but it’s just not true.
Every Utopia ever proposed assumed that a perfect society would remain locked in position, unchanging, unshifting. But no such static society has existed in human history. Not ever. Never.
It’s like watching a rock roll down a hill and saying, “Right there, when it was about halfway down. That was the perfect spot. I want it there.” You can’t have one moment without the whole trip down the hill.
We may fear change, want to avoid it, but it is the most unavoidable thing in life. We are in the car, and the engine is running and the car is in gear and we are headed up the road. We can try to steer, we can try to get someone else to steer, we can find ways to brace ourselves for impact. What we can’t do is stop the car from moving.
We’re continuously hitting a new stretch of pavement. We can celebrate Occasions to mark particular mileposts, but before and after that milepost, the car keeps moving and someone still needs to steer.
So yes, your Graduation Day is an Important Occasion. It is a unique once-in-a-lifetime day that may change your entire life. That’s is true. But here’s the thing—it’s also true for every other day that you’ll ever live.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I agree with your premises that 1) change is the only constant and 2) it's pointless to pine for the way things Always Were in a non-static world.

But all change is not equal in terms of its significance, nor worthy of the same degree of reflection and analysis. To borrow from your automotive metaphor, all steering adjustments are not fundamental course changes. There is value in discerning between the ruts and the forks in the road.

From my Flickr