Life Lessons from Joss Whedon
“You are all going to die.”
Yes, that’s Joss Whedon’s idea of an inspiring commencement address. He gave the 2013 address at Wesleyan University recently (transcript).
Aside from the snark, Joss does have a point. And his address was a really powerful one. I hope that the graduates remember it. I have little hope for that. I don’t remember my college graduation speech, but then it wasn’t Joss Whedon giving it either.
Here’s the thing, people might want to listen to him. He has done two impossible things in his life. He made a long running TV series about a little, blond girl who beats the evil instead of dying first, screaming all the while. Then he turned a failed TV series into a major movie. He’s done the impossible.
But I’d like to focus on one part of his speech.
I talk about this contradiction and this tension… There’s two things I want to say about it. One, it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice? It will not.
If you think happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. They will always be in conflict and if you accept that, everything gets a lot better!
The other reason is that because you are establishing your identities and beliefs you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you. Whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition…somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first you won’t be able to answer back. You won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me? Try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.
He’s talking about the contradiction and tension between “your body and your mind, your mind and itself.”
He’s right, we’re dying. All of us. From the moment we are born, we are doomed to die. But we don’t want to. If you could live as a healthy 30-year-old for a few hundred years, I think many people would take that option. We want to keep living.
That’s one of the lures of religion. “Yes, you die on Earth, but will live forever young in heaven, which is perfect happiness.” But Joss is right (and I’ve talked about this before).
We are creatures of the physical body. Hormones and other chemicals control us a lot more than people think… and I’m not just talking about drugs and alcohol here. And we humans have to deal with things like societal controls vs. instinctual behaviors. It’s hard.
T-shirt wisdom says that “Stress is the feeling caused by not choking someone who really deserves it.” We have to deal with that tension between instinct/body and mind/intellect/society.
These two aspects will never be at peace. It’s a delicate balancing act. Joss says that peace comes from not doing or achieving, but accepting that things will never be perfect. I tend to agree.
I think that this is a fundamental problem with religions. They say that there is a way to achieve peace and happiness and it’s not through accepting one’s self, but by accepting a deity. Pick some random, imaginary deity and then you will be at peace. When that deity destroys your life, your city, your family… you will still be at peace.
You will be pissed off. You might SAY you are at peace, but there’s no way. I’ve lived through stuff like this, both as a Christian and as an atheist. What I felt internally was exactly the same. The difference is, as an atheist, I could take those emotions out, examine them, and deal with them in a healthy way. As a Christian, I couldn’t do that. Aside from mouthing some inanity like “God is good”, Christians can’t deal with these kinds of emotions in a meaningful way.
Christians are stuck. If they accept that God saved their dog, or their life, or gave them that 3/4 cup of milk, then they must also accept that God caused the tornado, the fire, and the hunger of billions of people.
Which brings us to the second part of Joss’ comments. Christians (and a lot of other people) can’t think skeptically. They can’t do what Joss says needs to be done. Taking their ideas out and critically evaluating them.
When people state ideas, other people will attack them. There is no idea so perfect and so uncontroversial that someone will not attack it. Heck, some people will take a contrary position just because it’s fun to attack like that.
The skeptic has taken their ideas out of the box and seriously examined them. That’s the skeptic’s greatest strength. It’s hard. It’s not pleasant. But it is an extremely powerful tool. And it can make one’s life and actions better.
To a skeptic, no idea should be accepted without question. Ideas that survive an intense questioning can be accepted. Ideas that don’t survive this questioning process are rejected. It’s that simple.
Whether the idea is scientific, mathematical, religious, social, or anything else, we see how valuable skepticism is. Hey World, austerity doesn’t work. The great economists of the day can proclaim how it should work all day long. But the evidence shows that it simply doesn’t.
Prayer doesn’t work. String theory seems to be out. Guns kill people.
Yet, we can’t get past these things because people are not examining their pet ideas.
I get it. It’s hard to really criticize your own ideas. It’s not as comforting to read stuff that refutes your notions. It’s not awesome when you find data that destroys the thing you’ve spent a lifetime promoting. Changing your mind looks weak and wishy-washy.
But all of that is WHY we should be as skeptical as possible.
It’s really hard to criticize your own ideas, but it’s much less painful than when hundreds or millions of people decide that you’re an idiot because you missed a major flaw in your idea.
Changing your mind isn’t weak. It’s the strongest thing you can do. It’s saying that, you can change. That you aren’t dumb enough to go down with the ship. But to see new data, new evidence and realize that you were wrong.
I’ve done it. I’ve changed my mind on evolution, climate change, gun laws, and thousands of minor things (like soft drinks and ice cream). It’s not really fun, but you can say “I looked and this is what convinced me. Here’s the evidence.”
And that’s a lesson not just for a couple hundred college grads, but everyone on this planet.