Monday Over Coffee: "Commencing"

Published June 19, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

If this isn't nice, what is?
—Kurt Vonnegut, speech to graduates of Butler University, May 11, 1996

Our bright-eyed students have crossed the stage and flung their curiously-shaped hats high up into the air with great energy. It's now time to gather up all the sage and inspiring commencement remarks offered to these graduates and their dewy-eyed parents from all across our country and to choose the best of them.

Typically the lists of the “Best Commencement Speeches of the Year” are sprinkled with names you know: Olympic champions, political leaders, captains of industry, Pulitzer Prize winners, and some of our culture’s more thoughtful celebrities. Tom Hanks spoke at Harvard this year. John McEnroe at Stanford. Oprah gave the address at Tennessee State and six-time Olympic medalist, Jackie Joyner-Kersee offered advice to the graduates of the University of Illinois. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens provided the remarks at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, while actor Martin Sheen spoke at Loyola-Marymount. Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis addressed the students at Michigan, and Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, gave the commencement address at the University of Southern California. I expect they all brought something novel to the table. But none of them are Kurt Vonnegut.

Author Kurt Vonnegut was regularly invited to speak at college graduations addressing students at schools like Rice, Chicago, Syracuse, and Butler beginning back in the 1960s when his first novel, Slaughterhouse Five, was published. The invitations continued to mount up until the time of his death in 2007. He spoke at so many graduation ceremonies that posthumously, in 2013, some of his best were gathered up and turned into a book entitled, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young. Dan Wakefield, a novelist, screenwriter, and the author of several books on Christian spirituality, selected the nine speeches and penned an introduction to the volume. Wakefield wrote that while Vonnegut was an underground hero of sorts to a generation of young students, he was also a “counter-counter-cultural figure,” often satirizing the facile answers that a variety of new-age gurus of the time were offering regarding paths to peace and so-called enlightenment.

Instead, Vonnegut’s commencement messages—presented always in his unique conversational tone with neither platitude nor cant—pointed young graduates in a different direction. True joy and happiness, he suggested, was most reliably found simply through living with extraordinary kindness. Though an atheist, Vonnegut called Jesus’ expressions of mercy in the Sermon on the Mount “the only good idea we have had so far.” “Perhaps,” he added, “we’ll get another good idea by and by—and then we will have two good ideas.” 

In a commencement speech focusing on gratitude that he gave in 1996 at Butler University in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, he offered the graduates this advice:

"My uncle, Alex Vonnegut, an insurance salesman who lived at 5033 North Pennsylvania Avenue, taught me something very important. He said that when things are going really well we should be sure to notice it. He was talking about very simple occasions, not great victories. Maybe drinking lemonade under a shade tree, or smelling the aroma of a bakery, or fishing, or listening to music coming from a concert hall while standing outside, or dare I say, after a kiss. He told me that it was important at such times to say out loud, 'If this isn’t nice, what is?' "

This seems not only fairly easy but worth doing, as is remembering another piece of Vonnegut’s wisdom that emerges from this terrific little book of his collected commencement addresses. “The function of the artist,” Vonnegut said, “is to make people like life better than before.” When he was later asked if this was really possible, he replied, “Yes, the Beatles did it.”

I think they call a graduation ceremony a commencement because, though it’s the end of one sort of season, it marks the beginning of a new one. So, as we leave the season of commencement behind and set off on a new one this summer, it might not be a bad idea to recognize the function of artists that Vonnegut identified isn’t just solely for artists, but for each one of us. And, if we’re going to embark on a fresh new course that involves trying to make people we encounter simply “like life better,” recognizing and acknowledging our own “If this isn’t nice, what is?” moments might be a good place to commence the project.

God—As I begin to better recognize the small, sweet moments of everyday life right in front of me, help me to gratefully commence trying to make people like life better than they did before. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk