Editorial: Least Action
I’ve been writing for Chimes for four years and have occupied this editorial space for two. This is my last hurrah, and it’s going to be sentimental and inspiring, darn it. Cynics beware; stop now or forever hold your peace.
I’ve never been exceptional enough to give a graduation speech. I’ve never given a speech to any important body, really. I’ve heard my fair share, though (yes, I browse the Internet come late May in search of famous people giving commencement speeches at big universities), and I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering what mine would sound like.
Now that I have you here as a captive audience, I’ll tell you what I’d say.
First, I would read you my favorite poem. It’s by Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate 2008-2010. It’s called “Least Action,” and I’ve printed it here for you. Take a moment to read.
Least Action — by Kay Ryan
Is it vision
or the lack
that brings me
back to the principle
of least action,
by which in one
branch of rabbinical
thought the world
might become the
Kingdom of Peace not
through the tumult
and destruction necessary
for a New Start but
by adjusting little parts
a little bit — turning
a cup a quarter inch
or scooting up a bench.
It imagines an
a radiant body
puzzled out through
tinkering with the fit
of what’s available.
As though what is is
right already but
askew. It is tempting
for any person who would
like to love what she
After I read that, I would apologize for being an English major who loves poetry. I know you don’t all like it, that it confuses you or makes you sad or just plain bores you. But I would go on to tell you why this one is my favorite, and maybe that would help.
I would start with the title: “Least Action.” At first, you might think this sounds like laziness. And maybe it is, a little, especially for us seniors. We’ve spent four or five years working really, really hard. We’ve written papers and taken tests and applied to grad schools and crammed friendships, hobbies and sleep into the cracks. So least action might just be sitting on our couches for a few weeks after graduation, reminiscing and watching friends scatter and occasionally browsing the web for job openings. I think we deserve a little laziness.
But once we’ve gotten past that, we might be suddenly struck with the urge to do something. To put our degrees to work and make a change or a difference. That’s where things get sticky.
It’s really hard to make a difference. I often grumble about the people who say “you young folks can change the world.” I lament the difficulty of finding a place where I feel useful and powerful. In my speech, I might remind you that one vote in three hundred million doesn’t really make a difference, that buying TOMS shoes isn’t that helpful and even that donating blood isn’t a guaranteed world-changer. I might get a little cynical.
But then I would go back to Kay Ryan’s principle of least action. She gives us a way to change the world one little bit at a time. She says we don’t do it “through the tumult/and destruction necessary/for a New Start.” I take comfort in this because it means I don’t have to perform earth-shattering events. I don’t have to raise millions of dollars for an advocacy organization. I don’t have to lobby Congress until they change legislation in favor of my cause. I don’t have to destroy the current system and try to construct this New World.
All I have to do is scoot over on a bench to make room for someone who’s had a long day. All I have to do is turn a cup a tiny bit so that sunshine catches in the beveled glass and casts little rainbows on the golden wood of the kitchen table. All I have to do is pick up a piece of trash or pet a cat or leave a nickel on the ground for some curious kid to find. These things are not hard.
Next I might tell you that “incremental resurrection” is one of the loveliest, most full-of-grace phrases I’ve ever come across. It’s become one of those phrases that sticks with you and ends up doodled on notepads or tattooed on an arm or watercolored in a simple black frame next to the door. Just think about it: a resurrection, a renewal, a return to shalom that doesn’t just happen all at once but instead takes place over a period of time, filling each of those days with a reminder that we’re always getting closer, closer, closer.
Call me crazy, but I think this is how God works. God doesn’t really go for those parting-the-Red-Sea or feeding-five-thousand-with-a-couple-of-fish type of “resurrections” too often these days. Miracles might happen every blue moon, but it’s much easier for me to see God in the increments: the sunny days, the thoughtful friends, the good books, the chocolate chips.
Finally, I would tell you that I believe in tinkering with what’s available. Sometimes in our hurry to change the world, we forget about what already exists. Kay reminds me that there’s no need to create a whole new set of materials with which to change the world; it’s all about using what we’ve got.
Learn to tinker. Straighten that picture on the wall or open a door for someone or bake cookies. What is is right already. You don’t have to change the world; you just have to make it better, one incremental resurrection at a time.
That would be my graduation speech. You would probably clap at the end, because that’s polite. But in case you didn’t like it, I will leave you here with the words of someone wiser:
Learn to love what you can do.