It's not the most comforting thing in the world to have the director known for killing off his characters remind you of your own mortality. But Joss Whedon's speech at today's Wesleyan University commencement wasn't about comfort; it was about accepting contradictions and learning to listen to dissent from ourselves and others.
Wesleyan has posted a transcript of Whedon's speech, which starts with a story about the commencement speech he heard during his Wesleyan graduation ceremony. Bill Cosby asserted that there was no point in trying to change the world, a claim with which Whedon naturally took issue. It's not a question of changing the world, he says, but a question of staying connected to the world, even to the parts of the world—and the parts of ourselves—with which we disagree:
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.
You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness—but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It’s not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.
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.
The other reason is because you are establishing your identities and your beliefs, you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you, and whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition, somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first, you won’t be able to answer back, you won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me, try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.
And why is it important that we're all going to die? Because that's the contradiction inherent in humanity. We want to accomplish all of these big things in the world, while our bodies are interested in becoming fertilizer.
Photo via Wesleyan.