2009 Emmanuel College Commencement Speech
June 16, 2009
Dennis Lehane, bestselling author of novels including Darkness, Take My Hand; Sacred; Gone Baby Gone; Prayers for Rain; Mystic River; Shutter Island; and The Given Day delivered the Commencement Address at Emmanuel College's 87th Commencement ceremony on May 9, 2009.
Good morning. When staff at Emmanuel called my assistant, Christine, recently and asked if they could get a copy of my commencement speech, she laughed so hard she almost choked on an Altoid because the idea of me having anything prepared before the absolute nth hour of a deadline is fairly comical to anyone who knows me. I am a writer, in point of fact, because preparation is not my strong suit-making a bunch of stuff up is. I became a writer for a couple of lofty reasons, yes, but mostly because I'm no good at anything else and I look terrible in a tie. Just awful. I became a writer because I don't particularly like to shave until about the fourth day and I'm a big fan of working in a bathrobe. Oh, and I also don't do mornings. And yet I'm here. Why am I here? Well the most honest answer is because my wife, Angie, is an alum and when I told her I'd been asked to do this, she said, "Oh, please, oh, please," and you know, "Happy wife, happy life," and all that. So here was my wife all excited to return to her college and see her hubby give the commencement and maybe get a little VIP treatment from her alma mater. Oh, she's not here by the way-she got pregnant and can't fly on doctor's orders. While I'm standing up here before you, she's back in Tampa having her baby shower. That's irony. That's funny. Remember that irony, because I'm going to come back to it.
I've been asked what I could possibly say to you grads as you face a world with a terrible job market, a world still trying to sprout from beneath the ashes of the subprime mortgage crisis, a world in which bedrock American corporation after bedrock American corporation is going in the tank, and a world in which we are forced to know who Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are. It's ugly out there, no question. Hideous. Heinous, as we may have said when I was your age. When I left college, the housing market had just...collapsed, actually, after a five year boom. We had a little itty-bitty banking and junk bond crisis that pillaged our economy to the tune of 160 billion dollars, mostly due to a lack of proper federal government regulation. And a whole bunch of people in the Middle East didn't seem to like us much. Thank God, in twenty years, we've learned from that.
I can't stand up here and, just because I'm twenty years older than you, tell you those twenty years equate to wisdom. They don't. The world would very much want you to believe that you should take a career-track job (if you're lucky enough to find one) and laser-lock your focus on climbing the ladder in said job-first, so you can begin paying off your student loans; second, so you can begin amassing more debt via credit cards buying stuff for your first apartment; third, so you can sign up to the American Dream via a mortgage on a "starter" home with which you will build equity toward a "real" home which will increase, drastically, your debt and therefore chain you to that career track of that job for that corporation at exactly the point when you'll be beginning to question if that's all you want out of life.
If that is what you want out of life, by all means, please grab it. If it's what you want, then nothing could be finer. Truly. The happiest people I know are people who know what they want. I know happy plumbers because they do, in point of fact, love plumbing. I know happy accountants, happy stock brokers (okay, not many right now, but I knew a few), and happy lawyers. I am not, believe me, standing up here spouting some Corporate America is Bad BS. I'm not. But Corporate America is bad, if that's not where you wish to be. We've been sold a bill of goods that certain professions-those in medicine, law, finance, and venture capital-are to be exalted. They are not. They are not to be condemned, but neither are they to be placed on an altar for worship. They're just professions, and none have been designated by God to be any better than another.
The world wants good worker bees, because worker bees make the hive run and they don't ask questions, and they are usually polite enough to die once their work is done. Don't be just a worker bee. Think. That's all I ask of you. Think for yourself. Ask yourself something-what kind of world do you want? Not what kind of world are you told you should want. Not what kind of world did your parents want. Or their parents. With all due respect, we don't know anything. If we did, we wouldn't be handing you the world we're handing you now. If it were up to me, I would live in a world of tactile media-newspapers, books not Kindles, CDs you actually load into a tray. You would go to movies only in movie theaters and it would be a communal experience. There would be no cell phones, no headphones to block out chance human interaction, no Twitter or Facebook. I'm a Luddite essentially, and I could wax rhapsodic for hours about the years I lived Way Back When where, if you weren't home when someone called, they couldn't get a hold of you. When a weekend meant everyone stopped working. When privacy wasn't considered a social crime. And you know what you should say to me? "So what?" So what. My whining about the good old days is suspect because I'm bound to sentimentalize my youth the farther I get from it.
Were things simpler when I was 22? Maybe. But who said simpler is better? When did that become a concept worthy of being held up beside, "The unexamined life is not worth living" and Einstein's Theory of Relativity? Simpler is not better. Simpler is just simpler. And often times, it's highly suspect. It's certainly easier, but when people glorify terms like "simple" and "fundamental," I think of kindergarten. Things were fundamental when I was four-the square peg did not go into the round hole but it went into the square one. Cheers-lesson learned. Two plus two did, in fact, equal four. Cool. Good to know. But as I grew, the world got more complex. Math, for example-I'm a whiz at adding, multiplying, dividing and subtracting things. A human calculator. But then, in high school, they threw the X at me. And then the Y. Where the hell did they come from? I still don't get it. In high school, I had a teacher work with me after school every week so I could pass-barely, believe me-Algebra I and Algebra II. Now, was Higher Mathematics wrong because I didn't understand it? Should I complain about simpler times and exalt the superiority of long division over the Pythagorean theorem? If I'm a moron, sure. If I embrace stupidity and believe in the developmental stagnation of the human race, absolutely. It's not me that's wrong, it's the math.
There are a lot of people in this world who, metaphorically-speaking, want you to buy into hating math because they're too stupid to understand it. Don't buy in. Please. If the darkness of the last eight years in this country have taught us anything it should be this-nothing is simple. As much as we'd prefer it be, it is just not so. So if, in the name of simply providing us safety, they threaten our civil rights and want to run roughshod over the Constitution, wiretap us and proudly stand for torture, please remind them that thousands upon thousands of brave men bled to death on fields of battle for freedom from such things. Those are not abstract things and we cannot have them treated as such. America is not defined by armchair warriors and tough talking Monday morning quarterbacks who think shouting the loudest is the same as playing the game. It is defined by us. It is defined by you. I think therefore I am. You think, therefore you are. And never forgot what happened those times we decided it hurt too much to think, and so we handed the car keys over to others and said, "You can drive us off the cliff as long as you take the scenic route."
I feel so much hope now because no one is saying "mission accomplished" when it is most definitely not accomplished. No one is telling us our patriotic response to terrorist attacks should be to shop. We are now being asked to roll up our sleeves and work. To sacrifice the occasional luxury. To look at the price we asked of those who fight on our behalf as they return home in coffins. We are being told that things are not okay. And isn't that wonderful? To be talked to like adults. To be reminded that the world does not exist to service our needs. That life is sometimes hard and sometimes unfair. That while we may be capitalists-and in my case, a proud, diehard capitalist because, hey, I'm rich-happiness doesn't lie in conspicuous consumption and the relentless amassing of useless crap. Happiness lies in the person sitting beside you and your ability to talk to them. Happiness is clear-headed human interaction and empathy. Happiness is home. And home is not a house-home is a mythological conceit. It is a state of mind. A place of communion and unconditional love. It is where, when you cross its threshold, you finally feel at peace. Some of you will find home early in your lives, some may spend most of your life chasing it. You don't know. And I won't tell you there's a path to it, because everyone's path is different. What's been sold to us in The Matrix, if you will, is that the path is clearly marked by your friends at Madison Avenue-it's right there if you get the predictable job, the starter home, the T bills, the 2.3 kids. Well, that's BS, and I'll tell you unequivocally why-anyone who says they can predict the path of a life is selling you something.
And it underscores something that I'm starting to believe is the only absolute in this world-You can't predict anything. You truly can't. I mean, sure, you can predict that if you drive your car off a bridge, it'll probably get wet. And that third donut probably will go to your thighs. And it's also highly likely that some of the things I say today will annoy or have already annoyed some of your parents. A wee bit. So, yes, some things are a hair more predictable than others, but if all of you imagine where you'll be-exactly-ten years from now, 99% of you will most definitely be wrong. The old saying is, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," and that is so definitely true. This is not bad news by the way, nor is it a validation of the principles of anarchism, it's simply an embracing of a core reality of the universe-things change. In ways you can never see coming. So if you're happy, don't gloat about it, or think you're divinely chosen. You're just on a hot streak, nothing more, and it can all change in a second. So don't get too cocky. And if things are bad, for God's sake, don't give up. Because things won't always be bad. The same law applies-wait it out. Because things change.
One of my closest friends got cancer a few years ago, and I pretty much moved into Brigham & Women's, right up the street, to hang with her. She was 30 and told it was pretty unlikely she'd see 31. She survived, though, and then a weird depression set in; because of the chemo she would never be able to get pregnant, she'd always be a risk for re-occurrence-what man would ever want to be with her? About the same time, my own life was in a tailspin-my career was hot but everything else in my life was in the toilet and I was certain I would never, ever, know love. And my friend and I had this conversation the summer of '06, in which we wondered if this was all there was-I had a great career, she'd survived cancer, and that was all we'd ever get. More than most, right? So shut up and be happy about it. True, but we were also weary. There are times life is going to feel like the 16th through the 19th mile of a 26-mile marathon. This was one of those times. I just remember how tired my friend and I sounded in that conversation, busting our butts to make sure the Fates understood we were very grateful for what we had, but man, we were so worn down.
New Year's Eve, end of '06, I was at a party and the sister of a buddy of mine was there and I'd heard she was going through a rough time, so I went over to talk to her because she was such a sweet person and I can be a pretty funny guy, so I thought I'd cheer her up. And as I was approaching her, I got this feeling I have never had in my life, and it was that I was walking toward home. This woman was my home. Six months later, I proposed to her on top of the Green Monster. (She's from New York, you see, and a Yankees fan so I had to make sure Fenway became a sacred place in her life whether she liked it or not.) My friend who'd had cancer met someone the same night. Last month, she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy boy.
You don't have to believe in God to believe in miracles. If you do believe in God, wonderful. But there are miracles everywhere, because nothing is set in stone. Nothing. If you think it can't get any worse, God help you, because it can. But if you think it will never get better, you're just as wrong. Every single ill that assaults you can change. Every single ill that assaults this world can change. Maybe not in your lifetime, but maybe so. If you told me when I was 10 and watching this city tear itself to shreds over busing and race warfare that we'd someday have a black president, I would have responded, "Sure. When my son is 50." I'm not even 50.
Hope lives in everyone who refuses to accept the status quo, whether that status quo be a conservative beast or a liberal one because quite frankly I see little difference between the conservative fascism of, say, rural Texas and the liberal fascism of Berkley, California. One's just got more places to buy lattes. Hope is home. And home is what we're all searching for. And think of all the things you would never want in your home-needless violence and unnatural death. Ignorance, intolerance, lack of sympathy, lack of empathy, isolation and exclusion. None of these have places in our homes because none have a natural place in our hearts. So, I ask as you move on into the adventure that is the rest of your lives, that you never put out into the world what you would not welcome into your home, and that you think for yourselves and believe in yourselves, and never, ever, ever believe you have all the answers. Because you do not. But neither does anyone else. Embrace that and never stop thinking for yourself.
Have great lives. Congratulations.