The World is too Good for Apathy
Class of 2002
9:30 a.m., May 19, 2002
For the last month or so, all five of the planets that we can ever see with the naked eye were visible, all at once, in the west, just after the sun went down. Since two of my favorite things are astronomy and poetry, I wanted to make that fact into a metaphor, to imbue it with meaning, and use it in my speech. But then I realized that it doesn't mean anything, and expected it to miss the point entirely. The point is just that they are beautiful. Looking west, the sky that incredible shade of deep indigo blue, the moon just a sliver, you can see Venus shining brightly, the red of Mars, and the distinct points of Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury all lined up. And it's just beautiful, nothing more. But beauty is enough; Beauty is what makes life worth living.
And we're lucky here: beautiful things saturate our lives, we can find them everywhere and at any time, it's just a matter of noticing them, of paying attention. Look around you, at your friends and family-they are lovely. The weather, the blue sky dotted with clouds, red tulips against bright green grass, kids playing in parks, thunderstorms, Dairy Barn, the night sky, your friends dancing like maniacs at a Harris party or in the afternoon in your dorm room.
I realize that sometimes all these nice, pretty things can seem totally disconnected from all that we know is wrong with the world. On September 11th, the weather in Grinnell was beautiful, one of those perfect fall days in Iowa, and all of us were walking around as though we'd just been punched in the face and had our hearts broken in a matter of seconds. I remember feeling like that beautiful day couldn't be real, that it somehow hadn't heard the news. Moments like that threaten to undermine the value of the beauty: the country was falling apart and the weather was beautiful, and we could only conclude that obviously the beauty was wrong, it didn't count. But beauty has to count.
During the spring break of my first year here, my parents took my brother and I on a very long drive through the Appalachian Mountains. Spring was beginning to show on the branches of the trees, the sun was out.... My brother hated it. He told us he couldn't see anything beautiful in it, he only saw the pollution threatening the air and the ever-expanding suburban sprawl threatening the wilderness. But he needed to look closer. All the bad things do not make the good things obsolete; those trees, those mountains, that day was full to bursting with beauty, a beauty worth caring about, worth fighting for. The reason for caring and for working to make things better is not that so much is wrong, but because so much is right. The wonderful things in our day-to-day lives have to be worth fighting for. Our friends and our parents and our sad little brothers, clean lakes and quiet forests, Iowa nights so dark we can still see the Milky Way, whatever makes you happy, whatever you love-- all of these are more than enough reason to care. A world so full of important and wonderful things leaves absolutely no room for apathy and no excuse for being jaded.
I'm not trying to attack anyone. I understand how the "jaded" thing happens. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to one of my favorite people in Grinnell, and she told me that she used have the soul of a hippie, but now she's jaded. She said she sees all these kids working so hard to change things, fighting huge corporations and ideas ingrained in our society, and she feels like the problems are too big and the people fighting them to change things are too small and that real change just can't happen. And if we can't change things, then what is the point? And I understood what she was saying, I've been there-reading news is a daily test of my faith, of my optimism. There have been times when reading paragraph after paragraph of bad news has driven me to tears, when discussions in classes have overwhelmed me to the point of numbness, times when I've felt helpless and wanted to give up. Yes, the problems can overwhelm, the problems can seem insurmountable, but giving up is unacceptable to me. Because of the people I love, and the places I love, the beautiful things that make my life richer every day, I'll keep acting on the faith that others are too, the faith that what I do has a point. Because you know, small victories do count, and more importantly small victories add up to bigger ones.
And since victories come in all these different shapes and sizes, we can work for them in all kinds of ways. I know you all. You all have innumerable ways of showing that you care; you pick up trash on the streets, you write letters to the editor, you chain yourselves to hardware stores, you organize campus events, you mentor kids in the community, you plant flowers, you cook delicious tofu dinners for your housemates, you recycle, you galvanize the campus to stop the closing of Bobs. When we care, when we do the best we can to make things better, we're doing it because of the things and people that are important to us. We should all be activists because of all the things we love about our world, the beautiful things that make us glad to be alive. When we become activists because of these good things, instead of reacting against the bad ones, our activism will be carried out with joy. Be joyful in all that you do. Once we're in the habit of joyful activism, where we're doing important things and we're having fun while we do them, then we'll be well on our way to making a difference.
We cannot give up. Giving up, giving in to apathy, is not okay. It is easy, and, in the face of all that is wrong, sometimes it seems like the only option, but giving up seals our fate. Once we decide that there is no solution, that there's nothing we can do, well, then we're right. If we're not trying to change things then it's true, we'll never change anything. But if we care and if we live our lives in ways that reflect a commitment to social justice and environmental conservation than we might just make a difference. We have to have hope. Hope is not naÐ¿ve. That I have hope does not mean that I don't understand the nature of the problems. Keeping a hold on hope is hard, it's work, and it takes a conscious effort. It means constantly looking to the good things, the things that make trying worth it, and not allowing fear to overshadow faith. Basically, I think that hope amounts to a stubborn decision not to give in to fear or apathy. And avoiding apathy is hard, because apathy is a basic part of our culture. There is nothing original about it. We live in an apathetic country full of apathetic laws and policies and enjoy an entertainment industry that relies on apathy. We can laugh at anything, and we do; everything is a joke, and if you don't think it's funny then you're too uptight or you're lacking a sense of humor. And too frequently this laughter is not joyful, it is a laughter born of anger, ignorance, fear, and frustration. We're laughing because we don't know what else to do. If we laugh at all the things we don't understand or don't know how to deal with, then at least it can't hurt us. It is a classic defense mechanism. We're living in a culture that fosters apathy, makes it "cool" not to care. However, just as apathy can be contagious, so can activism.
In leading the Feminist Action Coalition this year, I learned first hand that the way to attract more members is to just do more stuff; the more you do the more people get involved, the more people that are involved, the more you can do. It's a wonderful cycle. History is full of excellent examples of how faith, solidarity, hard work, and dedication can really actually effect change. Hopefully all of us that grew up in the states learned about the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 in high school history classes -- it's famous because it's a truly remarkable story, a story of activism exceeding anyone's greatest expectations. One hundred percent of the city's African American population participated in the boycott that lasted 381 days. Think about that. That was their mode of transportation. In the end, they reached their goal of desegregating the buses, but they also set the Civil Rights movement in motion, pouring fuel on the fire.
In fifty years wouldn't you rather look back on the things that happened and know that you were doing your best, you were part of the movement that changed things, that saved things, rather than part of the population that stayed home to watch TV? Let's live our lives in a way we can be proud of. We are about to leave. This little school in Iowa will never be the same for us, and we will never all be together again. But we learned a lot here, both in and out of classes, and we're going to take it with us. When we scatter all around the country and the world we will still always be Grinnellians. Whatever you do, whether it's the Peace Corp, a job in a government agency, science, waitressing, working for a nonprofit, teaching, or anything else, do it with joy and compassion. We are about to join the "real world," and we're going to do important things there, serious things. Let's do them with thoughtfulness and social awareness, let's make sure we can feel proud of the things we do. But let's do these important things with joy and playfulness, as well. Holding on to that joy, paying attention to the beauty, helps us never lose sight of what we're doing, which is, after all, changing the world.