As an adjunct professor with a propensity for saying the wrong thing and who commands no respect whatsoever in the academic— or really any—community, I will most likely never be asked to deliver a commencement speech. But watching a recent graduation, I couldn't help but think: what an excellent but all too often neglected opportunity. The possible speeches I could give swirled through my mind. Here is one such imagined speech, written with a certain histrionic fervor.
I want you all to think for a moment: Are your parents happy? Do they consume life with unabashed joy, with voracious abandon? Now think of all your friends' parents: Are any of them happy? Are they lit up—by life? By ideas? By art? By their respective spouses?
I have to tell you: the life prescribed for you—work, marriage, children—is a drain on all that is vital in this world. Somehow, somewhere, we were all suckered into signing an egregious social contract in which we promised to give up 60 hours a week working in some humiliating job aimed at making someone else rich so that we can barely afford to pay our rents and car payments and utility bills and ensuring that we have no time actually to raise our children so we are left to deal with our children—which itself demands endless negotiating and placating because god forbid a parent should tell a child what to do—which all leaves us so wasted, exhausted, spent at the end of the day that we can barely muster an intelligent conversation with our spouses—not to mention do anything more, uh, satisfying with same said spouse—that all we can do is pour a heavy snifter of Scotch, pop a Valium, and watch ESPN until we fall asleep, only to awake and do it all over again the next day.
And don't imagine that the work you seek is noble and that this makes you exempt from the death trap that surrounds you. Your work may be noble; it may at times even be interesting. But it remains work and the demands it places on your body and soul are inexcusable. No matter how noble your work, it should not demand 60 hours a week—and the best hours at that! No, our society is a meth-infused, speed driven culture of unabashed consumption, hell bent on exploiting all vestige of energy, including the life that pumps through your veins.
This is the anxiety that should be haunting you as you stand at the precipice of the so-called real world. You should be shaking in your boots thinking: How do I avoid this death trap? Where in the world can I find peace, delectation, civility, pleasure, delight, appetite? But instead you entertain the anxiety of how, exactly, you will enter this horrendous, vampiric cycle of soul death. You wonder: How will my degree prepare me for work? When will I be mature enough to be a parent? What if I don't meet Mr or Mrs Right?
These are the wrong questions. These are the questions of a soulless, witless, joyless culture that is plummeting, rapidly, to its own demise. I have to tell you: As graduates of this institution, there is always work to be had. They—that ubiquitous "they"—will always have work for you; you're the ones who make them money. Don't think for a minute that you have to woo them; they are all too ready and eager to suck you dry. The trick is to parry the lunge of their soul siphon—not to head directly into their waiting mouths.
This insane, demented, completely out of control system—you have to work, you have to marry, you have to breed—is unsustainable. It devours the one thing that sustains it, namely, life. Why do you think there are Starfucks—excuse me, Starbucks—on every corner? Because people enjoy drinking half-assed coffee drowned in a quart of hormone-enriched milk? No, because they have no vitality left in their veins so they turn to caffeine—so they can continue working! Capitalism exhausts your personal reserves so it forces you to seek a whiff of vitality from elsewhere–namely, a double Grande Latte.
I ask you to consider, briefly, the cafes of Europe or South America. They are leisurely places where people talk, relax, enjoy each other's company, enjoy the day. Now think of Starbucks. It is not a place of pleasure; it's a place of work! The image of our coffee shops is marred by the ubiquity of laptops. We do not live in a culture of pleasure and delectation, a culture of life affirmed. We live in a culture that seeks to exhaust all of its resources, including its own life.
Now picture lunch in Europe or in South America. Long, leisurely affairs filled with delicious food, conversation, some wine, perhaps a brief siesta. Now picture Americans eating lunch: some grotesque wrap distractedly devoured over a laptop. I have to tell you, this is not a recipe for health, for vitality, for long life. This is an engine hell bent on devouring all remnants of energy. Why? Because it is has no reserves itself. This is a vampiric culture that needs the blood of others to sustain itself.
It's really a very basic question of physics or of economics, depending on how you look at it. The system eats its own source of power until it is drained of all natural resources. It is a system premised on the logic of the vampire: I'll suck your life to make my own; you suck someone else's life; and so on. It is not an infinite deferral; it is an infinite drain, a zero sum game. Take merely a cursory glance around and tell me I'm wrong. We're in free fall, plummeting fast. Can you smell the whiff of impending pavement?
So I say this: Change your question. When your parents ask, "But what will you do with a degree in philosophy or rhetoric or literature?" say: "Wrong question, Mom. Wrong question, Dad. The question is: How will I deflect and defer the hungry teeth of the vampire? How will I maintain my appetite for life, my joy at thinking and tasting and tinkering? How will I avoid the miserable lives that have turned you into Ambien drenched, sexless, joyless zombies?"
You have to jettison the very thought of a career. The question should never be: How will I work for someone the rest of my life so I have none of my own pleasures left? The question should be: How can I get enough money in the door with the least expenditure of my own energy so that I can maximize my own life, my own energy source, myself?
Now, as for children, ask yourself: Must I breed? If so, are you sure the neuroses of the nuclear family is the way to go? The fact is, human children are born way too raw, barely cooked, in fact. They are barely alive. Once they've left the womb, they need every ounce of your energy–and if you're a woman, this is literal—just to make it through a day. Babies are voracious; they need your energy to make it through the first years of life. I'm not saying don't breed; children are excellent. They are excellent precisely because they are insane.
But they do suck you dry with a relentless vigor. And the closed, little world of the bourgeois family is not the proper platform to breed on. Just look around you, at any family. No one looks very good as fatigue, indigestion, and disease punctuate their faces. There's constant bickering, passive aggressive pandering, cruel cut downs. The nuclear family is a failed experiment. The horrible, demented psychoses that swirl and whirl between mommy, daddy, and baby are horrendous, distasteful, and, again, unsustainable. We have to hire nannies because the tribe has gone missing—the extended network that it takes to raise children has disappeared. And we're left with this grotesquerie we call "family" that we mask in maudlin sentimentality.
So breed if you must—and it is a strong, biological drive—but ask yourself: At what cost this child? How can I make this work without losing myself in the process? Where's my tribe?
We live in a time of accelerated, shameless, unabashed consumption. Pleasure, delectation, enjoyment have gone by the wayside—they've been deemed too slow, too unproductive. We eat at our computers; we pound coffee to stay awake and pop Ambien to fall asleep. And by deigning to answer the idiotic questions of your parents and teachers—What job will you pursue?—you join this fraying existence.
The question is everything. The question frames the thinking. So perhaps you ignore everything I say here; perhaps you assume I'm just some jew quack ranting about the system. Perhaps you're right. But I suggest this to you: Just because someone asks you question—such as, What will do you with your degree?—you don't have to answer them. You can change the question.
Question the question, always.
And seek pleasure—slow, considered, thorough pleasure— because it is disappearing quickly.