Dennis Van Gerven | May, 1999
Life and the Sockeye Salmon
I am fascinated by sockeye salmon. In the prime of their lives they become compelled to swim up great rives from the sea where their bodies are smashed by rocks and torrents of rushing water. They swim and swim and swim and all they get out of it is a brief moment to mate and then die. I suspect that the only urge in all of nature more powerful than the urge calling sockeye salmon to their doom is the urge calling old people to give young people advice at graduation.
I am fighting that urge right now by imagining you as bright new automobiles leaving some Detroit auto-plant. The image is not without its terrors. First of all, CU would be required to provide some sort of warranty. Now there is a frightening thought. I can see the news releases — Sociologists discover faulty theory — 5,000 CU graduates recalled. New fossil ancestor discovered in Kenya 10,000 paleontology degrees recalled nationwide.
But the image also leaves me wondering about your equipment. What should we have installed in you as standard equipment? I can think of three things that you should all have in working order.
First and foremost, I hope you are equipped to make a fuss.
This is a tough installation for us because it requires deactivating part of the equipment you came here with. Every one of you came to CU with two powerful beliefs and your parents installed these beliefs early in your childhood:
First, always wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident and have to go to the hospital and
Second, don’t make a fuss.
I can live with the clean underwear requirement, but I hope that you have now been installed with a serious capacity for fuss-making. From now on, I want politicians and newscasters everywhere afraid to talk about silly issues in the presence of any CU graduate for fear that you will make a fuss. I want that fear to flourish until Americans have solved the pressing problems of overpopulation, over-consumption, pollution, sexism, genderism, and racism.
Think about just one piece of the racism puzzle. The average difference in life expectancy between Black and White Americans today is on the order of 5 years. That difference is smaller that in the past but lets use it. Add to that number another number. There is presently some 33.5 million Black people in the US. Putting aside the staggering accumulation of lost years since the slave trade, the shortened life span of these 33.5 million Americans is equal to obliterating the total lives of over 2 million people.
Calculating similar numbers many years ago, an anthropologist named S. L. Washburn made this point and it is still true today, the great evil of racism is that it kills every day and it kills by custom. I hope that you are equipped to MAKE A FUSS ABOUT THAT.
Some years ago one of my honors students studied health care among the urban poor in Denver. One of the things she discovered was this. Young women often wait in the parking lots of hospitals until they are far enough into labor to be admitted as emergencies because they cannot be admitted without insurance as obstetric patients. I what you to MAKE A FUSS ABOUT THAT.
A few weeks ago one of the news channels did a feature on a young Albanian child who had lost everything including her parents. She was sitting in a camp somewhere in Macedonia. As the TV camera closed in on her sweet face the reporter made a touching statement. He said this — this child’s face is the face of every child trapped in this horror.
Here is my diversity plan for the University of Colorado. I want to send 2,000 young men and women out of here every year who see the face of a young woman waiting in a Parking lot of some hospital as every woman’s face. I want 2,000 CU graduates to see the face of one young man tied to a fence and beaten to death because he was gay as every person’s face. And when you see those faces I want you well equipped to make a fuss.
As for your second piece of equipment, I hope that you are well equipped to use your time well.
Here is some interesting news. If you work 8 hours a day 5 days a week with a 3-week vacation each year until you are 70, your time at work will only represent 16% of your remaining.
In other words, you need to be equipped for a life 84% of which won’t involve your work.
If you have only thought of your education as a way of developing some great skills that can be bargained into a great job, this can be sobering news, but there is hope. As an anthropologist I can suggest that there are some wonderful role models out there in the form of simple human societies. For example an anthropologist by the name of Marvin Harris has observed that among the few societies that continue to practice hunting and gathering, the average adult works only about 2 hours per day at making a living. This is of potential interest because we also know that 99% of all of our shared history involved making a living as hunter-gatherers which means that most of what we are developed under those conditions.
In short, we are the sons and daughters of a long ancestry in which making a living wasn’t the major event of the day, or the week or the year for that matter. If that is the case, we might ask what in the world our ancestors did with their time because being their descendants we ought to be good at those things too. The things that I suspect our ancestors did a lot of to fill their time included the following:
- They talked with each other a lot
- They played with their children a lot
- They taught their children a lot
- They relaxed a lot
What troubles me is that we now do these things poorly but being such an important part of our history we may be hardwired. to need to do them well.
What happens when we don’t do them well? We feel like there is a great dark hole in our very center and so do our children. We then spend our lives trying to fill that hole with the one thing we learn to do well which is work. We also try to fill the hole with the things that work can buy.
In fact, some people are working so hard to fill their lives with things that they lose track of the difference between persons and things. Without the right equipment your work and your drive for material success can become so much a part of you that you run the risk of letting that drive become the end and you, then, become nothing more that the means for achieving that end. You risk thinking of yourself in thing-like terms. The day your career, your prestige, and the things your success can buy become the ends, you as a person become nothing more than the means and that is the day you are truly lost.
In the most fundamental sense I hope that your education has equipped you to spend a lot of time — indeed the majority of your time left on earth:
- Talking to others and helping make your and their lives interesting and worth while.
- Playing with children.
- Teaching children and just
- Relaxing and being with yourself.
You see, I am going to make a prediction — which is another thing old people do when talking to young people at graduation. I predict that we are on the verge of a discovery that may make E = mc2 seem like so much arithmetic. I think we are about to discover that doing the things I just mentioned well — things which by the way cost absolutely nothing — may be more important to keeping our children safe than all of the wealth in the universe.
In other words, drawing our children to us and caring for them may be more powerful than all of the stuff we could ever hope to buy for them. If my prediction is true, it is going to come as sobering news to a lot of people. But if you are properly equipped you will do just fine.
There is one last piece of equipment worth having and if we haven’t installed it I hope you got it somewhere else. It is an irrepressible capacity for skylarking.
In his address to the Graduating Class at Bennington College back in 1970, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. offered the following advice that I would like to repeat:
You have been swindled, if people have persuaded you that it is now up to you to save the world. It isn’t up to you [yet]. You don’t have the money and power. You don’t have the appearance of grave maturity — even though you may be gravely mature… don’t take the entire world on your shoulders. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people your age. “Skylarking” incidentally, used to be a minor offense under Naval Regulations… it means “intolerable lack of seriousness.”
What a wonderful crime!
I sincerely hope that you will always be well equipped to skylark.
And, by the way, wearing clean underwear is a good idea even if you don’t get in an accident and have to go to the hospital.