Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Not all bad news . . .

In my new Kentucky home, there have been two wonderful commencement addresses this summer, one by Barbara Kingsolver, the other by Wendell Berry. The first I was fortunate to be able to attend in person. I only wish I had been there for the other.

It should come as no surprise that neither speaker indulged in the customary ritualistic stroking of young achievers' egos.

Kingsolver's, given at Centre College, was called Picking Up the Bread.

Berry's commencement address was given at Lindsey Wilson College.

A brief excerpt from Kingsolver's address:

Now it's your turn. Your adulthood has been defined by world events in a way that's unlike any generation that came before. When you were a brand new college student here, still trying to figure out how to fit all your stuff into your dorm room and find your classroom buildings, without a clue what your major might be, you walked to class one September morning and heard this terrible news. Remember that morning? First you thought somebody was making it up. Then you got more of the story, maybe saw the images on a television: our country, our buildings, attacked, destroyed by planes. For the first time in your life, or in your parents' lives, for the first time anybody could remember, we were attacked in a terrifying way, on our own soil.

What has changed for you, I wonder? What does it mean to have that as the defining event of your college career, subtly influencing your sense of what your life is supposed to be? I can only imagine. But I know this: you cannot hold the delusions that the rest of us have long held dear. America the great, the beloved, the people everybody else wants to be -- our parents used to tell us that's who we were. We can't tell you that. You'd laugh. You know we are a nation both great and dreadful, a mixed blessing on the face of the globe. Some people want to be like us, and some don't. Many are not happy with what we do, what we use up, what we send out into the world -- our pollution, our armies, our sense of what belongs to us. We've refused to cooperate in the global community in some important ways: we have scorned the World Court. We refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to curb air pollution and global warming. The rest of the world has ratified it, so they're moving on without us. But how can they not resent our refusal to cooperate? We have created ourselves in an image that is powerful, for sure, but not universally held to be glorious. We have modeled a system of international friendship that sounds a lot like that big mean girl on the bus: "Give me that candy bar or I won't be your friend no more."

That's the America you get. One that's riddled with promises and debts and good intentions gone wrong. You get to see if you can do any better.
And from Berry's:
I am worrying about you and your children and the world itself because the qualities that make humans the most astonishing of all the families of creatures -- our intelligence, our ambition, and our power -- have made us also by far the most destructive of all the creatures, a danger to all the others and to ourselves.

If I worry, I do so of course because I believe that we don't have to be so destructive, because there is plenty of evidence that, if we so choose, we can be peaceable, neighborly, loving, kind, gentle, grateful, and careful of all the Creation and its good gifts.

And yet the great moral issue of our time, too much ignored by both sides of our present political division, is violence. From the colonialism that began with long-distance navigation to the present stage of industrialism, we of the so-called West have lived and gathered wealth increasingly by violence.

This has been increasingly an age of fire. We now travel and transport our goods by means of controlled explosions in the engines of our vehicles. We run our factories, businesses, and households by means of fires or controlled explosions in furnaces and power plants. We fight our wars by controlled, and sometimes uncontrolled, explosions.

Violence, in short, is the norm of our economic life and our national security. The line that connects the bombing of a civilian population to the mountain "removed" by strip mining to the gullied and poisoned field to the clear-cut watershed to the tortured prisoner seems to run pretty straight.
I should say that, in spite of the dire picture of the world they both presented, both speakers ended on a challenging, but positive note. These are wonderful essays that should be passed around and shared.

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