When I was in L.A. at Fox Studios I was reminded of one thing. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame anybody for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents or the Government for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise anybody for experiencing poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have been poor, and I agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.
What I feared most for myself was not poverty, but failure.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what makes up failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere ten years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. A series of exceptionally short-lived relationships had imploded, and I was jobless, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern the U.S without being homeless. The fears that my parents had for me, and that I had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be since represented a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope and not a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and the fount of all invention and innovation. In it’s arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
One of the greatest formative experiences of my life was living in Germany Though I was in the Military I volunteered my time by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.
Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left.
I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was then, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.
Every day of my working week, I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.
In every War, very day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or support power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International and in the Military than I had ever known before.
Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Unlike any other creäture on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to stay comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know. They can claim the President is the reason their lives are a failure, never seeing the collective reason why we are sliding into a rabbit hole for the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.
I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
What is more, those who choose not to empathise, enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we colluded with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
My travels in the military allowed me see the wonders if the universe. Whether in Germany or Spain …whether in Korea or China whether in Montana or in NYC you see the best that people have to offer. How wonderful it is though that no one has to wait a single moment to make the world a better place.
Imagine if all the men and women who gave so much of themselves to this country didn’t have to be Homeless. Last year it was reported close to 250 thousand men and women who served were homeless.
Imagine if we didn’t have to hear about stories a 5 year old child who was dying and the insurance company refused to pay anymore for his medicine because they said “It cost to much”. Or the Golden Gate which was closed down because of repairs that cost to much.
In 20 yrs will we be traveling on worse roads Will water be clean …will China be the leading manufacturer of Solar panel and will we be traded for another hostage with companies American and foreign, that in many cases wish us anything but good?
The answers to these questions depends on a great many things I lived in Europe for 5 yrs The infrastructure compared to ours. We’re moving along in the equivalent of a Ford Pinto with bridges rotting and falling down, while other nations, our competitors in the global economy, are building efficient, high-speed, high-performance platforms to power their 21st-century
We used to be smarter than this but Washington all but gave up thinking. America’s infrastructure, education and people, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades. We’ve become stupid about this.
Much of the nation’s rail is approaching the tail end of its useful life. If you’ve flown anywhere recently, you know what a nightmare that can be. To the extent that we have any all, , often doing more harm than good as it serves the interests of politicians who are crazy for pork and not the real needs of the American public.
You can’t thrive as a nation while New Orléans is drowning, and Detroit is being beaten into oblivion decade after decade, and a bridge in Minneapolis is collapsing into the Mississippi River, and cities in upstate New York and the Rust Belt are rotting from lack of employment opportunities, and so on.
Imagine, instead, an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and water and the ocean’s waves. Imagine if the children of today’s toddlers had access to world-class public schools all across the nation and a higher education system that is both first-rate and affordable.
Imagine if we set out seriously to do all this.
I have one last hope for everybody, The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for President.
So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. Unless you meet them Facebook friends are not real friends nor following Movie Stars will make you part of their lives. Its like saying going to church makes you religious or standing in your garage makes you a car. Tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”