Sunday, May 31, 2009

past, present and future


The past is not what it’s so often cracked
up to be, and though some choose to flee
the present for the future, it is packed
with problems, hardly what it used to be.

The past and present have together let us
down, and we who can’t live by the letter
of the testamentum that is vetus
can’t find a testament that’s any better.

Presently we’re creatures of the past,
which like the present we will come to curse,
for both of them are dies in which the future’s cast,
and doomed to be, compared with them, far worse.

Inspired by an article by Frank Bruni about commencement speeches (“Buck Up, Graduates!” NYT, May 31, 2009):
It’s a mean season for silver linings, but that hasn’t kept inspiration-minded commencement speakers from reaching for them. And what flows from lecterns coast to coast is some of the most strenuous, creative optimism ever fashioned, as graduates are told not only that the cup is half full but also that the opportunity to replenish such a vast measure of missing liquid doesn’t lurch into view too often. Isn’t that heady? Isn’t that a privilege? Privilege is a word in heavy rotation, as is responsibility. The kinds of exhortations to dream big that some previous generations and classes of graduates heard have been supplanted by pleas to be strong. To be patient. To accept and even feel ennobled by the challenges of the nation’s current juncture. And to know that no matter how grim the road seems, it has no corner on grimness and could in fact be grimmer….
There’s much oratorical flailing out there, as speakers try to figure out how to be upbeat and when to be downbeat — what’s the right ratio, what’s the best recipe. A few of them elect a truth telling so unvarnished it’s as if they’ve swapped the diplomas they’re supposed to give graduates with cyanide capsules. “We are in a recession, and the labor market is weak,” said Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, at the Boston College School of Law. “Many of you may not have gotten the job you wanted; some may have had offers rescinded or the start of employment delayed.” Having thus lifted his audience’s spirits, Mr. Bernanke proceeded to the task of giving them a detailed, fail-safe plan of action. “So,” he added, “my advice to you is to stay optimistic. Things usually have a way of working out.” The writer Christopher Buckley, addressing graduating seniors at Yale University, didn’t bother with that sort of compulsory (and unpersuasive) reassurance. He just annotated the doom and gloom with a joke. “This hasn’t been the most excellent of millenniums,” Mr. Buckley noted. “You entered your teens just around the time of 9/11, and now you’re entering the job market — to use an ironic term for it — during the Great Recession.” “As a French philosopher put it, ‘The trouble with our times is that the future isn’t what it used to be,’ ” he added. “Being French, he probably went on strike after coming up with that.”..
In truth, many speakers have found less circuitous routes to inspiration, alluding to the milestone of a first black president and heralding diversity at the highest levels of government. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with authority at Barnard about the advances of women. But when she wandered beyond that topic, some of the season’s oratorical desperation crept in. She said that today’s graduates could use tools like Facebook not only “to tell people you’ve gone to get a latte or you’re going to be running late,” but also to unite people to “fight human trafficking or child marriage.” And Twitter, she said, had great diplomatic potential. Tweeting our way to better relations with Iran? It’s not a conventional beacon of hope. But this year, it will have to do.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/31/09

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