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In defense of David Guterson

David Guterson, inteviewed for a German broadcast. Credit: 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.

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