Embrace your inner contradictions and those of the world

Joss Whedon, happiness, peace, acceptance, conflict, contradictions, global education

These are some highlights from Joss Whedon’s recent commencement address via Brain Pickings. He focuses on how contradictions constitute our very identity and that of the world, and encourages us to accept and cherish them as our ‘greatest gift.’ This is also a good way to change ourselves and the world, about which we do not have a choice anyway, since we change ourselves and the world simply by being alive, for we do not pass through life but life passes through us. It is fruitful to think of honors education as transformative learning, a lifelong journey during which we change the way we relate to ourselves, others, and the world:

The humanities spend a great deal of time embracing our world, and when you embrace your world you see the similarities between people, you also see the differences and you learn how to respect those differences. (Ken Burns)

Perhaps Walt Whitman put it best in section 51 of Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass:

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Finally, it is also vaguely reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek’s take on Jacques Lacan: Enjoy Your Symptom! (2007).

On the heels of this season’s finest commencement addresses — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, and Arianna Huffington on redefining success — comes screenwriter, producer, composer, and actor Joss Whedon, who delivered the 2013 Wesleyan commencement address, brimming with sometimes uncomfortable but invariably profound reminders of our purpose and challenges as human beings. […]

Whedon begins with a rather atypical subject for graduation speeches — the mortality paradox:

“What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die. … You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.” […]

Like science, Whedon argues, human identity is inherent contradiction, driven by “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.” And given what we know about the myth of one-dimensional personality, this makes sense. But this ability to recognize and embrace our inner conflicts and bipolar tensions, Whedon assures as he echoes Bruce Lee, is a blessing rather than a curse — one of the hallmarks of being human, even. In that respect, he reminds us, like Anaïs Nin eloquently did, that our identity is in constant revision — or, as Vi Hart memorably put it, “Your greatest creation is yourself. Like any great work of art, creating a great self means putting in hard work, every day, for years.” Whedon urges:

“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.”

Whedon goes on to encourage us to try embracing rather than eradicating those inner paradoxes of which we’re all woven:

This contradiction, and this tension … 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.” […]

Ultimately, what makes Whedon’s speech so beautiful is that he takes one of commencement addresses’ most contrived tropes and turns it on its head, gives its trampled flatness new dimension:

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 yourselves. 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.”

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