In defense of David Guterson

The author heard heckling when he gave a graduation address at his alma mater, Roosevelt High. It was a good speech.
David Guterson, inteviewed for a German broadcast.

David Guterson, inteviewed for a German broadcast. Photo: Das Blaue Sofa

Novelist David Guterson took some abuse last week over a commencement address he gave at his old alma mater, Seattle's Roosevelt High School. His talk was deemed such a bummer by some members of the audience — mostly parents, according to one attendee —that he was booed.

At graduations, usually a happy day for students and family, the new grads are supposed to be uplifted and encouraged by their elders. The speakers are expected to have a sense of occasion. Graduations and funerals are no time for the truth! They are a rite of passage, a celebration. Guterson's serious talk focused on the difficulties of achieving happiness in life. Instead of telling his own sensational literary success story, Guterson seemed reduced to being a Debbie- or rather a David-Downer. My guess is Guterson was not an alum of the school's Pep Squad.

The Stranger published Guterson's remarks, and the speech is quite revealing and striking in several ways.

One is its overall message, which is that self-centeredness and instant gratification will not bring happiness. True happiness is something each individual makes for themselves. To the students, Guterson said:

"Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom. And you can find this freedom, which we might also call happiness. Your life can open toward greater happiness and greater freedom, and it is entirely up to you to make that happen. Because in the end you have the power to do it no matter what the universe seems to be like and no matter the challenges of our place and time. You really are in charge of your own happiness. Which is, I think, both exhilarating and terrifying. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could do it for you? It’s such a daunting and important task, really the central task of life. But I urge you to work, on your own, or with the right mentors, or preferably, in both ways, as honestly and fiercely as you can on this matter of your own happiness."

This part of the message one could imagine might resonate with the school's namesake, Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of individual action and initiative. A kind of self-less self-reliance seems like a contradiction, but is also better than the alternative: a superficial life painfully seeking an existence that is rather pointless. Roosevelt, I imagine, might have made this point a little more succinctly and by shaking off the worries of impending middle age and charging up San Juan Hill or killing a grizzly.

Guterson, however, seems more prone to brooding. In his talk, he wondered if he had been a particularly morbid 18 year old, thinking back to his Roosevelt days and his own wrestling with life, death and, perhaps worse, old age — and he's still at it as he gets older. Guterson's talk was tinged with middle-aged angst as he nears 60. My sense is the parents more likely booed Guterson's reminders to them of mortality and life's limits, rather than the threats such worries posed to their graduating seniors. It all gets more intense as the sand runs out of the hourglass.

Guterson has wrestled with the happiness dilemma in his works, and the one that particularly comes to mind is what I consider his best book, "The Other," which features two baby-boomer era high school students. One, Neil Countryman, is much like Guterson, a Roosevelt grad who becomes a teacher — and the other, John William, is a rich Lakeside boy who drops out and becomes a hermit in the woods. They smoke pot, they climb mountains together and they wrestle with life's big questions, 1970s-style.

They confront life's challenges in different ways, as many of us do. Countryman takes the more establishment path of trying to shape a meaningful life with the traditional trappings of family, career and conventional success, yet maintaining a kind of inner, creative integrity. William, the trustifarian, drops out, rejecting material things to live in the mossy rainforest immersed in Gnostic texts. But his embrace of "otherness" does not bring happiness or enlightenment. At one point, William confronts his pal with the choices he's made on his conventional path: "You’ve got your whole life in front of you, maybe 50 or 60 years. And what are you going to do with that? Be a hypocrite, entertain yourself, make money and then die?" These questions are at the heart of the  dilemmas posed in Guterson's speech, and the William-Countryman struggle is one that takes place inside many a creative soul. Is their a happy medium between sell-out and stylite monk?

One is struck too with Guterson's intense sincerity, the earnestness with which he attempted to convey truths to his young audience. In an era of Jon Stewart, he might have been more effective if he'd remembered to add some humor. At worst, the talk seems to sag into lecture and lose the sense of joy that happiness — true, hard-won happiness — actually brings. For a 15-minute talk, it reads like a long 15 minutes. It reminds me of the kinds of lectures about life's hard choices that some Scandinavian dads give to their son's at Lutheran confirmation time. Today is a day of joy, they say joylessly, but life, life is hard. Cue the dim light. It's the gospel according to Book of Wallander.

Overall, I think Guterson's talk was a noble effort, and while it wasn't everyone's dish of tea, as my Calvinist granny would have said, it had more truth in it than the usual commencement blather. I also think those booing parents — more protective of their own sensibilities than that of their kids — likely underestimated their own charges' ability to process such things. The issues of life and death form a huge part of the inner life of adolescents. To have an adult address them head on rather than pretend life is an endless episode of "Glee" is refreshing, and if they don't know it now, they might appreciate it down the road.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 6:49 a.m. Inappropriate

WOW! I wish I had been there. He speaks my language. I'm off to get his books today. I hope they are as compelling as his speech was.

cbbear

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

" A kind of self-less self-reliance seems like a contradiction..."

Um, self-less self-reliance as the path to happiness is in fact the central message of both Hinduism and Buddhism. It has nothing at all to do with Teddy Roosevelt. Just thought you'd like to know.

woofer

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Sure it was a good speech - if he was booked at Town Hall with an audience of boomers. These were 21st century teenagers eager and anxious to become successful one day. In front of them was a respected, prize winning, bestselling author who once walked the halls of their school. While David's speech contained some good nuggets, the kids missed them because he didn't appear to be talking to them. Nor was his speech synched to the mood of the occasion. It was a waste of everyone's time, including his own. Worse, it was a missed opportunity.

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

David had a nice jump shot. He may still be accurate.

eddiew

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 1:01 p.m. Inappropriate

There is a larger question about the duties of a graduation speaker inherent in all of this--and about the obligation of the chosen speaker to modulate his or her beliefs in favor of the hope an inspiration of the occasion. That's a given.

As a '74 Roosevelt graduate with Dave, there is, however not much surprise in what he said. It's in his writing, and he said what he believes. The booing may well be what everyone will remember, and that specter is to me the most unfortunate outcome.

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 2:40 p.m. Inappropriate

With all due respect, had Guterson been talking to an "audience of boomers," the speech would have been wasted...because the advice would have been too late. I think the point, JC, is that high school kids actually have time to act on the advice and make it a life habit.

The characterization of teenagers as all being "eager and anxious to become successful one day," is just one of many templates we can put on them... and a overly-simplified one at that. And for such a teenager, Guterson's advice is well-put...in other words, don't get so caught up in what you think you ought to do that you forget what the core of your happiness consists of.

JC - your opinion seems to be, that grad speakers should express only uplifting, cheerleader-ish, and frankly, predictable, sentiments.

I'm willing to bet most of the kids actually found the speech to be original and compelling. (Anyone out there able to verify or contradict?)

I think the real story here is the parents... witnessed a similar outburst at a middle-school graduation of all places... I'm not sure what it says about parents of this generation (self-absorbed? entitled? can't allow your kids to just experience the world on their own terms? overly controlling?) ...but I'm pretty sure it does not say something good.

I wish I had read the entire speech, but judging from the excerpt, that was one of the best f'ing grad speeches I've ever heard, and Roosevelt is damn lucky to have had him there. People pay bigger celebrities millions for speeches half as good.

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Woofer: I think Guterson was speaking and perhaps a less spiritual level. TR embodied action, hard work, and public service. Not claiming he was a Buddha.

Re: John Carlson's comments--the good news for Guterson is we're all talking about a high school graduation speech. When was the last time anyone said speaking to high school grads said anything the rest of us cared about?

Posted Tue, Jun 18, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

OK, I went and read the speech:

"You will move in the direction of self-less-ness, which is a good thing, because if there is no self, who is it that has to die some day? There will be no one there to die. There will be no self. Die now, so you won’t have to do it later."

This is pure Buddhism, restated in modern terms: the individual self is simply an idea; it has no ultimate existence. One fails to find happiness because one has identified with an illusion.

As for appropriateness, the talk was perfect for a group of bright 18 year-olds standing on the threshold of trying to figure out what life means, less so for nervous and fearful parents hopelessly mired in their dysfunctional ways.

woofer

Posted Mon, Jun 17, 5:06 p.m. Inappropriate

If Mr. Berger believes none of us really care about what is said at a high school graduation then why bother writing about it?

From what I read of Mr. Guterson's address, it was as much how he said what he said (dull and too pedantic for the target audience)) rather than what he said.

Posted Tue, Jun 18, 7:17 a.m. Inappropriate

I was at the Roosevelt graduation, in the stands with the parents. I am a former RHS teacher and was there to see some of my students graduate that night.

The graduates behaved far more respectfully than (a small handful only) of the parents in the stands. They listened politely and attentively to Guterson's speech and did not interrupt him. The parents' behavior was less decorous. I couldn't help but think that this is what we get in a culture in which a congressman feels it is appropriate to heckle the president in his State of the Union Address, and the level of discourse in online discussions can be at the level of playground shouting.

I think Guterson's speech was a wonderful essay and meditation on the themes of life that are important for even teenagers to contemplate. I don't think the speech was entirely appropriate for the audience and the event, but it certainly served to stimulate dialog, rather than just put out the usual feel-good platitudes (have a great life, do good work, keep in touch) of the average commencement speech.

His speech was certainly the talk of the graduates after the ceremony. All of the students I spoke with said they thought it was an interesting speech. And believe me, these kids would tell you if they thought it was stupid or irrelevant. So, in that sense, it was a success. It got 400 eighteen year olds to contemplate some important issues.

You could see the former high school teacher in Guterson at work on stage that night, even if it wasn't the best time for a classroom lesson.

I think one of best comments on the speech was Roosevelt principal Brian Vance, quoted in the Seattle Times article: he wanted to ask Guterson “what he was trying to accomplish and whether that was on target with what happened or not.”

Posted Tue, Jun 18, 7:19 a.m. Inappropriate

The Roosevelt News, the student newspaper, published the entire text of Guterson's speech, with his permission: http://www.therooseveltnews.org/keynote-speaker-heckled-at-commencement/.

Posted Sun, Jun 23, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Finding happiness is "the central task of life"?

Can there be a more clear condemnation of the vanity of Mr. Guterson's generation?

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

All grads should read Guterson's novel about high schoolers, including the downbeat Seattle character John William, and also my profile of Guterson:
http://cityartsonline.com/issues/seattle/2008/08/naked-and-dread
Said Guterson: “John William is a morbid Gnostic. He has no romantic impulse. He’s too much of a dark realist to embrace the world the way that Chris McCandless did.”

Guterson’s not a Gnostic — an early Christian sect that said no to life — but his view has darkened with age: he calls his first two books “very Romantic” and the second two post-Romantic. “When I talk to high school students about this book, the metaphor I use is the Matrix films. This guy wakes up to the truth and now he can’t live in the world anymore. There’s no going back. Would you give up your knowledge for more happiness?” Guterson opted for happiness in his own life, cutting a deal with the straight world. But he still thinks John William has a point.

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