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Graduating from ‘an eye for an eye’

Pursuit of excellence: graduates after Bermuda College’s annual Commencement Ceremony(Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

It’s graduation season. At the Bermuda College this week, a new crop of freshly minted graduates were offered sage advice on life and the never-ending pursuit of knowledge and excellence by Opposition senator Kim Wilkerson, the commencement speaker.

And across North America at this time of year, dozens of other capped and gowned young Bermudians completing their studies at US and Canadian colleges and universities are listening to other commencement addresses intended to impart some parting words of wisdom to students as they prepare to contribute to bettering the world.

The word “commencement” means the beginning of something. It’s traditionally the point of embarkation for those who are starting out on their life’s journey with a hard-earned diploma and, understandably enough, all manner of gnawing anxieties and unresolved fears.

For these young adults, armed with newly conferred scrolls but precious little in the way of practical experience or the invaluable life lessons that are taught only by time and not college instructors, it’s now their world, too — to make better or worse. And that’s a heavy burden to take up, one that can appear overwhelming at times.

The late Indiana-born writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1922-2007) has accurately been described as “a champion of literary style, a kind of modern sage and a shaman of happiness”. No stranger to the island, Vonnegut’s wife, the renowned photojournalist Jill Krementz, was a one-time Bermuda resident, her parents owning a home on Harbour Road for many years. Their son-in-law visited them here often. So often, in fact, the Slaughterhouse-Five author ended up creating a fictional Bermudian alter ego, a character called Kilgore Trout.

Wandering in and out of a series of otherwise unrelated novels and stories, this quixotic Bermudian-born writer and homespun philosopher was, like his creator, always capable of finding moral meaning in a world that often appears to be meaningless, random and entirely chaotic.

In his later life, Vonnegut became one of America’s most celebrated and sought-after commencement speakers. Unfortunately, he was never asked to speak at a Bermuda College graduation ceremony. That’s a pity because he would almost certainly have accepted any such invitation had it been forthcoming. And the advice and pointers he was known to provide at such events would likely have answered at least a few of the unanswered questions rattling around inside graduates’ heads.

Informed by his trademark rueful humour, Vonnegut’s commencement speeches — like his bestselling, latter-day fables and parables — always offered reliably wise and benevolent counsel.

Perhaps his most celebrated commencement address was delivered at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, on May 15, 1999.

Vonnegut reflected on the gift of compassion and how we — as a culture and as individuals — have routinely failed to appreciate and embrace it:

“I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world,” he said. “Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, ‘What’s gone wrong?’

“What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly 4,000 years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too, as — are you ready for this? — ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

“A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody’s going to be really sorry.”

Although Vonnegut was famously averse to organised religion — even describing himself as an atheist in another commencement address — he went on to invoke Jesus Christ, not as a divine figure but as a moral exemplar, the most human and humane example of humanity in all of recorded history.

And he urged that year’s Agnes Scott graduates to rejoice in the invaluable cultural legacy that Christ bequeathed to the world:

“When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do’,” Vonnegut said. “What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, ‘Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful’.

“His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only 12 words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s E = mc2.

Pointing to his own secularism, Vonnegut said Christ’s philosophy and example transcended all belief systems, all religious, philosophical and cultural boundaries, and had universal application: “ ... I say, ‘If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’

“If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

It was incumbent upon young people, Vonnegut said, to reject the sins of their fathers and not to further perpetuate the never-ending cycle of hate, distrust, bitterness and blame prescribed by the eye-for-an-eye credo.

“Revenge provokes revenge, which provokes revenge, which provokes revenge — forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago,” he said.

Vonnegut argued that it was an individual moral obligation to emulate this philosophy of kindness and compassion, something to cultivate within ourselves — and would likely always entail going against the prevailing cultural current:

“We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury,” he said. “In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on ...

“But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation.

“And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same — so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone. And if this isn’t nice, what is?”

It actually doesn’t get any nicer than this at all. And Bermudians graduating in the Class of ’16 would do well to always remember that, no matter where their various life journeys take them.

Congratulations and best wishes to all of you on behalf of the management and staff of The Royal Gazette Ltd.