Amnesty International USA
Central Campus Lawn
May 17, 2004
Listen to this speech (MP3 file)
Thank you and good morning President Osgood, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and especially the 2004 graduating class of Grinnell College.
It has been my privilege to deliver a number of graduation addresses at several institutions of higher learning, but never one as distinguished as Grinnell. Indeed, I should warn you that the last college for which I performed this task, closed its doors two days later. But I am confident that fate will not befall any college that could graduate a man like James Norman Hall, as Grinnell did in 1910-a man who could co-author a world-renowned book ("Mutiny on the Bounty") and then spend the last twenty-seven years of his life living off its royalties in Tahiti. That is a college who deserves to live forever.
"Look to the Northward stranger," wrote Hall, of his native land "Just over the hillside there. Have you ever in your travels seen a land more passing fair?" He was not referring to Tahiti but to Iowa.
And I too feel a special connection to Iowa because your governor and I went to high school together in Pittsburgh. He doesn't know we went to high school together because, though there were only about 250 students in the school, he and I barely spoke a word to one another. That was because he was younger than I was, he was one whole grade behind me and therefore of absolutely no consequence to me and I have had no contact with him since but now that he may be the next Vice President of the United States I am proud to call him one of my dearest friends.
So it is a pleasure to be here in my old pal Tom Vilsack's state on this important day.
So here I am at Grinnell prepared to tell you all you need to know from here on out to live successful lives. To do that I want you to imagine for just a few moments what it will be like the day before the day you die.
Now naturally I hope that that day is a long way off; I hope you all live long and prosperous lives. And I don't mean to inject a morbid note into what quite rightly ought to be a day full of promise and possibility. But I also know that one way to insure that you live a rich and rewarding life is to take seriously these simple words of Henry David Thoreau's, "I wish to live deliberately, to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived." For my part I can imagine no worse fate than to feel, on the day before my death, that I had never truly lived.
When Vaclav Havel was inaugurated President of what was then the Czech Republic, he said, "My...program as President is...to bring spirituality, moral responsibility, humaneness and humility into politics and in that respect to make clear...that our deeds do not disappear into the dark hole of time."
Now that is a remarkable thing for anyone to say and especially for a politician. I don't know about you but I am far more accustomed to politicians saying foolish things rather than wise ones. (The one exception to that rule is my very best friend, Tom Vilsack.) When I lived in Massachusetts many years ago, a State Senator got on the radio one night and proclaimed in loud and fervent tones, "The Republican octupus is spreading its testicles across the entire Commonwealth."
So I was deeply impressed when I read Vaclav Havel's words. But I wondered whether what he said could possibly be true. Could it be that spirituality, moral responsibility and humaneness might indeed save our deeds from the dark hole of time, save our lives from the yawning maw of the world's forgetfulness?
After all, even those who are fortunate enough to have received a measure of the world's acclaim drift soon enough into obscurity.
I am often in the city of London for Amnesty International and whenever I'm there I always read the The Times of London. I don't like The Times but I buy it because I like its obituaries; they always capture something telling about their subjects. A few years ago, for example, Sir Vincent Wigglesworth died at age 94. The Times described him as "one of the outstanding biologists of his time" and "a man of exceptional singleness of purpose." Sir Vincent, it seems, was the world's greatest expert on insect excreta and The Times quoted him as saying shortly before his death, "I chose to work on insect excreta for 66 years and that has made all the difference." And yet, acclaimed as Sir Vincent be, he too is down to dust.
What, then, could Havel possibly have meant? What do you need to do from here on out to insure that you not discover, on the day before the day you die, that you have not truly lived. I offer you two observations.
If it is true that all recognition is fleeting and all glamour is ephemeral, then the way to judge the value of a life is not by its reputation or its achievements, its grade point or its honors, its degrees from Grinnell, but by the keenness of our sensibilities, the curiosity of our minds, the gentleness of our hearts, by how many other's hearts we've gladdened. Rilke put it this way: the secret, he said, is to "treasure with such eager care the light that plays on every passing moment."
Richard Selzer who is a medical doctor, a surgeon wrote of one of his patients, "I stand by the bed where a young woman lies. Her mouth is twisted in palsy. In order to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had had to cut the little nerve to her mouth."
"Her young husband is in the room and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private."
"All at once the young woman speaks, 'Will my mouth always look like this?' she asks. 'Yes,' I say, 'I'm sorry, it will. It is because I had to cut the little nerve.' She nods and is silent but the young man speaks. 'I like it,' he says. 'It is kind of cute.'
"And then, unmindful of me, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close to them I see how he twists his own mouth to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece in the form of mortals and I pause to let the wonder in."
So you see, the first way to avoid discovering on the day before the day you die that you have not lived is to seek out crooked mouths to kiss, to treasure with such eager care the light that plays on every passing moment.
And the second way to hold onto your life is to give it away, to give your life to something that transcends it-to a passion, to a cause, to a child, to a faith. Just as my fellow honorary degree recipients have done, just as President Coleman has done in education, just as Doctor LappÐ¹ has done in humanizing this globe, just as Doctor Muangman has done in the field of public health. Wendell Berry says that the secret of life is to "work and rest kindly in the presence of the world."
We commemorate this year the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed close to a million people. In the midst of that slaughter machete-wielding militiamen attacked a young girl's school in the middle of the night. The teenagers were rousted from their beds at 2:00 a.m. and forced to line up in the dining hall. They were ordered to separate themselves, Hutu from Tutsi, so that only the Tutsi could be killed. But the girls refused. A second time the commander ordered them to divide up by ethnic group. But still they refused. And finally one of the little girls found her voice and, though very frightened, this is what it was she said: "I'm sorry sir, but we cannot separate ourselves, you see, because we are not Hutu; we are not Tutsi; we are Rwandan." Those little girls did not survive the genocide.
But what a legacy they leave! "We are not Hutu; we are not Tutsi. We are Rwandan." In that simple sentiment that young girl bespoke a graciousness upon which depends the salvation of the world. In a magnificent essay entitled "The Moral Necessity of Metaphor," the novelist Cynthia Ozick quotes this passage from the Book of Leviticus: "The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you and you shall love the stranger as yourself because you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt" and then she goes on to say that it is exactly because every single one of us was at one time a stranger in the land of Egypt that we can identify with another, that "doctors can imagine what it is to be patients. That those who have no pain can imagine what it is to suffer. That those at the center of power can imagine what it is to be outside the circle of power. That the strong can imagine what it is to be weak and we strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of [other] strangers."
I have never been tortured nor had my arm amputated but I know of plenty of people who have and I am compelled to make a metaphorical leap from my own trivial sufferings into those of the hearts of strangers, familiar hearts of every stranger, foe or friend, adversary or ally. You need not love your enemies. You certainly ought not allow them to harm you. But you risk your own destruction if you deprive them of their most basic dignity.
We've learned that all too well in the last two weeks with the reports of the torture of the Iraqi prisoners. What could possess young Americans to hold someone under water until he almost drowned? To sic dogs on naked, cowering prisoners? The soldiers had no training, we are told, but what training ought we need to reject such behavior other than the training we ought to have received at our mothers' or fathers' knees. They were only following orders, we are told, and perhaps they were. I personally met with top officials of the Pentagon and the National Security Council over a year ago to beg them to look into reports of torture of Afghan and Al Qaeda prisoners, but my pleas were ignored. Was that because those officials knew too little or too much? But orders or no, what could have prompted such iniquity?
Solzhenitsyn gives us a clue, for in The Gulag Archepelago, his massive tale of life in the Siberian prison camps, he says, "If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere doing evil deeds, and all that was required of the rest of us was to separate out those evil people and to destroy them. But you see, he says, the dividing line between good and evil passes through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy his own heart?"
The second way to know, the day before you die, that you have truly lived is to give your life to something more, something bigger than yourself, to a passion, to a cause, to a child, or to a faith and in that giving, to work and rest kindly in the presence of the world.
Spirituality, moral responsibility, humaneness and humility -- are these indeed what rescue our deeds from the dark hole of time? Every single one of us will slip eventually into that dark hole but to have lived with attentiveness and passion, treasuring the light that plays on every passing moment, having given oneself to a larger purpose, working and resting kindly in the presence of the world, that will be to slip into that dark hole not with fear and trembling -- not with that; not with regret or rage -- not with that -- but with trust and calm and gratitude, loving even the depths and embracing the clean, still darkness. That's all there is to it. It's as simple as a kiss on a crooked mouth. It's as a difficult as a young girl's defiance of a killer. But it's a prescription for success and way out of the forgetfulness of time. May your lives be rich and your hearts be full of generosity and wonder.