Saying yes (and remembering to laugh)

Honoring Stephen’s expectation during Monday’s show that Knox College simply rerun his commencement speech from 2006, I wanted to highlight here both his story about Jesus and comedy and also his fine advice to the graduates:

I wanted to say something about the Umberto Eco quote that was used earlier from The Name of the Rose. That book fascinated me because in it these people are killed for trying to get out of this library a book about comedy, Aristotle’s Commentary on Comedy. And what’s interesting to me is one of the arguments they have in the book is that comedy is bad because nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Jesus laughed. It says Jesus wept, but never did he laugh.

But, I don’t think you actually have to say it for us to imagine Jesus laughing. In the famous episode where there’s a storm on the lake, and the fishermen are out there. And they see Jesus on the shore, and Jesus walks across the stormy waters to the boat. And St. Peter thinks, “I can do this. I can do this. He keeps telling us to have faith and we can do anything. I can do this.” So he steps out of the boat and he walks for—I don’t know, it doesn’t say—a few feet, without sinking into the waves. But then he looks down, and he sees how stormy the seas are. He loses his faith and he begins to sink. And Jesus hot-foots it over and pulls him from the waves and says, “Oh you of little faith.” I can’t imagine Jesus wasn’t suppressing a laugh. How hilarious must it have been to watch Peter—like Wile E. Coyote—take three steps on the water and then sink into the waves….

[big snip]

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. … You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

(Hat tip to Rocco at Whispers in the Loggia for last spring’s post Yes And Catholicism).

And check out the video of the last part of the speech here.