Tuesday, May 22, 2012

HT Mockingbird: "What Doesn't Kill You Almost Kills You", Conan O'Brien's Dartmouth address


In 2011 Conan O'Brien addressed the graduating class of Dartmouth.  He said quite a few things.
One of his statements about the year 2011 job market is both funny and grim.

"Yes, you parents [of Darmouth graduates] must be patient because it is, indeed, a grim job market out there. And one of the reasons it's so tough out there is because aging baby boomers refuse to leave their jobs.  Trust me on this. [audience laughs and applauds] Even when they promise you for five year's they're going to leave and say it on television, and you can go on Youtube right now and watch the guy do it, there is no guarantee they won't come back. Of course I'm speaking generally."

O'Brien transitions into the more serious content in the closing third of his address.

"There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. I went to college with many people who prided themselves on knowing exactly who they were and exactly where they were going.  At Harvard five different guys in my class told me they would one day be President of the United States." He went on to jocularly remark that none of those guys ever became POTUS.

O'Brien observed a paradox in the history of comedians.  Each generation's great comedian in television could be said to have forged his identity in the failure to become his hero.  In the 1940s Jack Benny was at the top of the heap. Johnny Carson wanted to be Jack Benny.  Carson emulated Benny but his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest man of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be the next Carson.  Letterman famously failed to Carson and yet he became the model and hero for Conan O'Brien's generation of television entertainers. "It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention."

Casting this in terms of musicians and composers both Mozart and Beethoven admired Haydn.  Neither Mozart nor Beethoven was Haydn but, as many must already know, both Mozart and Beethoven are considered more profound and tend to be more popular than Haydn.  I can appreciate Beethoven ... and some Mozart ... but I think I can hear what it was in Haydn that inspired his two different proteges to their own kind of greatness.  J. S. Bach did not set out to revolutionize musical art as the Western world knows it, not that I know of, yet he did.  Though a composer like Haydn could emerge as the son of a wheelwright and gain greatness many of the great musicians and composers in history have tended to be the culmination not merely of individual but of family legacies.  Beethoven was the child of a musician.  Mozart was the child of a musician.  Bach represented the culmination of generations of musicians. Everyone builds on a foundation that someone else builds even if the foundation is your own mind.  You, after all, didn't choose to bring yourself into the world,  your parents made a simple decision or series of decisions that led to you being in this world. You got luck enough to be born because two other people before you, well, got lucky.

O'Brien had quite a few other things to say but his observation that whether you fear it or not failure will strike you is something to keep in mind.  You can try to avoid it, as he advised you do, but you can never forget that failure can and will still strike you.  


It's not like I haven't been acutely aware of failure in the last 32 months since I got laid off.  I knew my job well enough to know that if a tough decision had to be made my job would be the one that would be wisest to cut.  It still hurt a lot when the day that job had to be cut came.  Trust me, when you're alert enough to realize that if someone had to get cut it'd have to be you there's no consolation in having anticipated the possibility of that cut when the day the cut has to be made.  I loved working with the team I was on.  I liked and respected my boss. I liked and respected my boss's boss.  I was not only good at what I did I was considered the best at what I did in the region I worked in. My work was considered the model for other people to follow.  In the cases where I didn't follow some of the rules I was paid the respect of being told that if I broke a rule I came up with one that made sense, I explained why I did this, and I always followed it.

But life happens and economies tank and job markets change.  When disaster strikes it can be because of something you don't see coming and can't control.  Or, worse yet, it can hit you and you realize that it was something you sorta saw coming but didn't think would actually hit you.  That's when it hurts even worse.  It doesn't matter how long you live or how far you go in life, the shock of failure or of disaster never really gets easier to deal with.  You never get used to it.

I'm not an optimist about many things.  People who know me well know this about me.  One of my family members has described me as a friendly pessimist.  I'm pessimistic about the future and about the human condition but, do you need to talk?  Sure, I can make time for that, it's okay.  We can have some fun.

When I was about 20 or 21 I read The Brothers Karamazov, on of the greatest works in world literature. In this great novel it is observed that there are men who profess an undying love for all humanity and the nobility of the human spirit who, nevertheless, hate all the actual people they know.  When I was determined to take the opposite approach, perhaps the approach embodied in some sense by Alexei perhaps not.  My desire was that whatever I grimly concluded about the human condition and the nature of humanity I did not want to just write off the people I met who were flesh and blood.

Perhaps by extension I have admired the works of Hayao Miyazaki.  As a pantheist and environmentalist Miyazaki could not be more morose about the future of humanity and the world and I am not a pantheist and I can't say I'm much of anything by way of environmentalism, though perhaps I might say I can sympathize with a conservationist interest. Miyazaki was once asked why his gloomy outlook on the human condition has not become an explicit theme in his work.  To this he replied that he believed it was immoral to crush the hope of change for the future, it was immoral to tell a whole generation of children there was no hope and no possibility for change.  You can't justify telling a child the world is so broken and the human condition so gloomy that the child has no basis for any hope.

Paradoxically or not a pantheist and a gloomy Christian can be said to have something in common, we do not believe our bleak assessment of the human condition entitles us to forget the spark of the divine in someone else.  Miyazaki is a pantheist so it's not all that surprising he'd see an element of divinity in a person, for instance, but a Christian affirms that humanity bears the image of God.  Francis Schaeffer used to say that though man is fallen he is not a zero. This is an observation that seems lost in a number of trenches in American Christianity.  Yes, we live in a broken world and people will discover they are broken and even break others.  Yet even something or someone that is broken can still be full of beauty.

If there is any great process of discovery for me as a Christian and as a writer and a thinker it is that the most profound gap between where I was and who I was ten years ago and where I am and who I am now seems to be this--I was part of a community that was determined to consider, per the Bob Dylan song, "Everything is broken." We did not stop to consider or discuss that we, ourselves, are broken in ways we can't really perceive or imagine. But, beyond those particular shortcomings, there was another--it is easy to forget that even broken things and broken people have beauty in them. Now might not be the most appropriate or shocking occasion to say that I have always found Batman a more fascinating character with more fascinating stories than Superman.  Of course Batman is legendarily known to have begun his career in the face of a heart-crushing loss, a disaster he couldn't possibly avert. Batman is, in that way, a useful pop myth for the person who realizes that no amount of positive thinking or positive confession will make the world less broken.  But when Ra's al Ghul decides humanity must be exterminated so the world will be pristine and beauitful again and humanity will know its proper place who goes to fight him?  The Dark Knight.

It's silly, it's maudlin, it's overwrought, it's tired and worn out and yet it is a theme that never ceases to fascinate and obsess generations of people, just because something or someone is broken does not mean it has no beauty. This should be least surprising of all to those who are Christians who remember and celebrate the beauty of a man who was broken on a cross.  We must remember that we do not remember the cross because the cross is beautiful. It is one of the most depraved ways Romans could devise to dispatch anti-Roman dissidents and terrorists who were not themselves Roman citizens. It was the ultimate way to humiliate, dehumanize and ultimately kill people who were already not even considered fit to be inside Roman society.  The stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone.

Of course by this time I've appeared to gone so far afield of the themes in O'Brien's commencement address you might think I haven't been talking about how an apparently miserable failure could be the foundation for new life ...

1 comment:

Eagle said...

Indeed everything is broken. A couple of months back I attended the Reason Rally here in DC. I had this "aha" moment where I realized that agnosticism and atheism is broken as well. In my efforts to get away from faith and religion I dabbled and flaoted around in another one. So muhc is broken today.

I remember when I was laid off from my job in 1999. It was at a department store..a seasonal position that was supposed to turn into a full time. It didn't. I can still remember the conversation. I was told to get my last pay check. And to be off the property in 2 hours or they would call the police. How intimidating... How embarrassing. When I left the store and came home I went into my old room, laid on the bed and cried. Its almost 12 years later but I can still remember that expereince. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I've always been afriad of losing my job since that happened.

Hang in there