It's Up to You

Associated School: 

I’m really honored to be invited by our five graduates to speak here at their ceremony.

I’ll begin with a quote from a science writer, Elizabeth Kolbert:

“Zalasiewicz is convinced that even a moderately competent stratigrapher will, at the distance of a hundred million years or so, be able to tell that something extraordinary happened at the moment in time that counts for us as today. This is the case even though a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.” (The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert)

Well. That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

The point, though, is not merely that everything people ever build will be crushed into dust, but, despite that, it will be obvious from looking at that dust that something extraordinary happened during the time it wasn’t dust.  The “something extraordinary” that the stratigrapher Zalasiewicz is referring to as happening today is not your graduation.  Sorry, I mean, congratulations and everything, but it’s something else - anyone want to guess?

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene epoch, which began 11,700 years ago following the last major ice age.

But many scientists of various disciplines say that label is outdated.  They argue for “Anthropocene” — from anthropo, for “man,” — because human civilization is causing mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluting the oceans and altering the atmosphere, among other indelible impacts.  In other words, the impact of civilization on the planet has been so profound that it warrants the declaration of a new geological epoch.

Zalasiewicz is referring specifically to a great extinction - affecting flora and fauna from all corners of the earth including in the lakes, rivers, and oceans.  Headed for extinction in the near future are 40% of all amphibians, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, a sixth of all birds, untold thousands of species of plant."  There is a complex network of causality at work, and we are at its center.  What we do affects the world; we’re doing this.  Some examples: Frogs, one of the most ubiquitous creatures of the rainforests, are disappearing, victimized by a fungus spread by human beings.  Coral reefs, aside from being transcendently beautiful and the largest living structures on the planet, support thousands of species of flora and fauna; within 50 years every single reef on the planet will be dead or dying due to ocean acidification caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels.  

Right here where we sit - the Hudson Valley - is the epicenter of a thoroughgoing dying off of bats.  Bats, whose position in the food chain is so crucial to so many ecosystems.  They’re also dying from a fungus brought to us by human travelers.  

There have been five other major extinction events in the last 430 million years.  The most famous of course is the last one, when an asteroid hit near the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and a lot else besides.  This time, though, as one scientist puts it, we are the asteroid.  And we’re imperiling ourselves, too.  But why am I talking about this right now?  

A couple weeks ago Chet was designing a new bumper sticker in the office.  A few staff and students were throwing around ideas for a catchy slogan that would entice people to look up the school on their smartphone while they swerved around the streets of Kingston.  Finally Garret suggested the phrase, “Kids Are People Too.”  Everyone was like, yeahhh, that’s it, that’s the one.  That’s awesome.  That’s what we’re about: Kids are people too.  That insight is the starting point of this school. Our structure, our ways of doing things, our reams of protocols and policies and procedures all attempt to follow out the implications of that insight;  kids (and teenagers) are full-blooded human beings, complete as they are, even if less experienced than adults.  And so they ought to be responsible for making decisions about how to spend their time, and they ought to be welcome to take part in legislating, interpreting, and enforcing the rules of their community.  If we want responsible adults,  we ought to refrain from denying kids responsibility.

Schools always have these buzzwords - you know, these lists of words - at the middle school I taught at in MS the second year the principal came up with a list I think it was “four Rs” - I think it was four of them, and responsibility was one of them, but what was meant by it was, “do what you’re told,” and we’ll call you responsible.   And that way of thinking about responsibility is common, and it’s given the word “responsibility” a kind of dour, soggy, burdensome weight.   I mean it’s just no fun, I have to be responsible;  I have to do what I’m told.  And it’s one of our buzzwords, too, but I think we have a better definition here - our definition is something more like, “it’s up to you.”

It’s up to you.

And that is very much not dour or soggy - it’s glorious.  Claiming responsibility for your own life, for your own community, for your world is glorious.  “I am responsible!” That’s heart; that’s love. Something extraordinary is happening today, and we need responsible people.

So I want to give you some advice too - I get to do that, right, as a speaker here today?  I get to tell you what I think you should do?  The first thing I want to tell you is be confident; it helps.  If you’re not confident, pretend.  It works.  Cultivate it.  Remind yourself - Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I am a goddam hot-blooded human being and I am confident.”  Give it a try.  And, you know, confidence doesn’t mean arrogance, or yelling or in your face, or extroverted; you can be quiet and confident.  You also don’t have to be sure you’re going to succeed at whatever you’re doing to be confident; you just have to know that whatever happens, you’re going to keep going.

You will need moments of confidence to follow my second piece of advice, because it’s risky and dangerous: don’t do what other people tell you to do. Except for me. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a lot of good advice out there.  But my advice is to think for yourself. And when you’re thinking clearly and carefully, oftentimes you will do what you’ve been told to do, because you’ll understand it and choose it yourself.  Mindlessly doing something other than what you’re told is equally destructive as mindlessly doing what you’re told.   So what I mean is don’t just passively adopt the dominant narratives of society; don’t passively do what you’re told.  Thinking is not easy.  It’s hard, slow work, and there are powerful forces all around us trying to keep us from really doing it.  It’s easy to allow your mind to run on autopilot, isn’t it?  It’s easy to just be absorbed into your internal monologue, isn’t it?  It’s easy to be passive.  But you can choose to think deliberately, and you can choose what to think about; I encourage you to think about the world, think carefully about why it is the way it is.  And about why your life is like it is.  Read about it.   Ask lots of questions about it.  Investigate it.  Seek out the guidance and good thinking of others, especially that which contradicts and undermines your own opinions, beliefs, and ideas.  And talk about it, and don’t be afraid to speak with conviction.  If you’re wrong, you can correct yourself later (and you should).  

A man said, “Look. This is your world! You can't not look. There is no other world. This is your world; it is your feast. You inherited it; you inherited these eyes; you inherited this world of color. Look at the greatness of the whole thing. Look! Don't hesitate - look! Open your eyes. Don't blink, and look, look - look further." (Chogyam Trugpa)

Is anyone familiar with Indra’s Net?  It’s an image from Indian culture of the world as a net, crafted by the god Indra.  At each knot in the net there is a multifaceted jewel, and each jewel represents one thing, and each thing throughout space and time, including people, and including ideas, including each datum that is true, is included.  When you inspect any of the jewels very, very carefully, what you find is the reflection of every other jewel in the web.  Each one implies every other; each one is composed of nothing else besides the others.  And that also means that if any jewel somehow might be changed, every other jewel changes too, even if imperceptibly.  

What you do is important; it changes the world.

Something extraordinary is happening today.  You are graduating; you have been "prepared gradually; arranged, tempered, modified to a certain degree" (definition of “graduate” from Websters 1913).  You’ve done this yourself, and with the help of many others.   And it’s important.  What you do -the decisions you make - matter, even if you’d rather that they didn’t.  That’s another lesson that spending time at a school like this - where we’re all in it together - makes easier to learn.

So.  A great extinction is underway; the world warms inexorably; the oceans acidify; Welcome to the Anthropocene.  Soon Homo Sapiens will be the last living species of great ape, and we will face unprecedented challenges.  But listen to the message that the French general Ferdinand Foch sent to his superior during the First Battle of the Marne in World War I, he wrote, “My centre is giving way, my right side is in retreat. Situation: excellent. J’attaque!” I am glad the five of you are graduating.  The world needs a great community of people who are liable to respond to the situations before them, to address what needs attention, and to find joy in the hard work of creation rather than in personal worlds of pleasure and comfort, and I believe the five of you are on that path. It is a good day to graduate; it is an exciting time to be alive.  You have lived differently here at this school; take it with you.  We need to find different ways of living.  We must.  So let’s do it; let’s keep doing it; let’s do it together.  

Congratulations, and feel free to call me if you ever need to make bail.

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