The Avengers director and Buffy The Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, who graduated from Wesleyan University in 1987, when his commencement speaker was Bill Cosby, returned to his alma mater this weekend to give an address of his own. It’s not an exceedingly long speech, but it’s a smart one, and I was struck by three particular insights that seem useful both for people who are graduating into these particular circumstances—and for anyone who is going into a creative profession.
1. You will not ever achieve complete peace: One of the most difficult transitions in adulthood is from an environment where your performance gets regular, affirming feedback in the form of grades, and where you get regular opportunities to recharge, to one where you have to have an internal sense of your own success and progress, and where you have to decide for yourself when you’re in danger of burnout and need a break. For today’s graduates, I can also imagine that with jobs hard to find, and economic independence even further off, it’s easier to assign extremely high value to things like getting a job, finding a relationship, or even moving out of your parents’ house that are important to feeling independent and successful, but that are really the beginnings of building a life, not the end point of it. As Whedon put it on a larger scale:
To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It’s not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.
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 that 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. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.
2. You should understand people who disagree with you—if only so you can argue with them at your best: One of the things that’s always made Whedon’s work striking is his villains, which makes this advice useful for both for writers, and for life. He argues:
Somebody’s going to come at you, and 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.
3. Freedom actually involves a lot of responsibility: Whedon’s had the money to do side projects, like Doctor Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog for a while, but his relationship with Marvel has given him even more power—and opportunities to bring his long-time collaborators along with him to share in his success, whether it’s casting J. August Richards in his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show for ABC, or getting a heavily-disguised Alexis Denisof into The Avengers. Whether or not you end up a powerful genre director, how you end up successful, and what you do with that success when you achieve it, are choices, not predetermined paths:
This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level.
Freedom is not freedom from connection. Serial killing is freedom from connection. Certain large investment firms have established freedom from connection. But we as people never do, and we’re not supposed to, and we shouldn’t want to. We are individuals, obviously, but we are more than that.