Bill Watterson on Imaginary Ladders and Happy Lives

I was searching for something/anything on Calvin and Hobbes‘ creator Bill Watterson this past weekend […]

David Zahl / 7.18.11

I was searching for something/anything on Calvin and Hobbes‘ creator Bill Watterson this past weekend and came across the graduation speech he gave in 1990 at – you guessed it – Kenyon College. For those keeping score, this marks the third Kenyon speech we’ve excerpted (is there something in the water in Gambier?). While the piece as a whole is a bit bogged down by the licensing fight Watterson was embroiled in at that very moment with Universal Press Syndicate, there are definitely a few gems worth sharing. The part about playfulness in particular rings a few pneumatological bells, not to mention the bit about happiness deriving, by necessity, from somewhere beyond the judgement/value/Law paradigm:

If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness…

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of just getting by absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your politics and religion become matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry.. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing.

P.S. I had long been contemplating a series unpacking some of the (exceedingly) ripe theological content of the series, but then I discovered that it has already been done, and done extremely well over at Experimental Theology. I was particularly impressed with/moved by the post dealing with the Grace of Rosalyn the Babysitter.

P.P.S. Never having taken any poly-sci courses, I was unaware that Richard Hofstadter’s textbook The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It begins with the lines:  “Long ago Horace White observed that the Constitution of the United States ‘is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes that the natural state of mankind is a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.’”