The Speeches That Endure

When asked to name a speech that has profoundly influenced us, many of us tend to return to the same touchstones. Gettysburg. JFK’s Inaugural. “I have a dream.”

So many of the speeches that first spring to mind invariably come from a handful of watershed political and civic events. (Of course, today’s corporate leaders increasingly also look to Steve Jobs’ product rollouts as sources of inspiration.) It’s understandable that politics looms large in our conception of the craft, given the prominent role that speeches play in advancing policy agendas. But we should remember how often the speeches that leave the largest mark go unnoticed by the world at large.

Weddings. Funerals. Graduations. These events mark some of the most significant moments in our lives, days that echo in our memories after much of the politics in any given moment have largely receded. Even with all of the technological change our society has seen, all of these events still tend to have something in common – someone is asked to stand up and say a few words to mark the occasion.

It’s here – in rural churches and modest football fields and backyards – that some of the finest speeches are delivered. They are seldom recorded for posterity and rarely appear in headlines. Much of their meaning might be practically lost upon an outsider, unfamiliar with the in-jokes and local references that give these words meaning for all of those who do get them, as they chuckle or nod their head in recognition. We may not know it at the time, but these words can often change the direction of our lives far more than the meticulously crafted rhetoric of any national leader.

For me, a speech that has endured is one that I heard just once – all the way back in 2005. It was a commencement speech of sorts for a very unique educational experience – a study abroad program called Semester at Sea. It’s hard to imagine now how fortunate I was to participate; the program allowed a few hundred college undergraduates to study on a cruise ship for a semester, with multi-day stops in countries on three continents. (The program administrators always took pains to call it “a voyage, not a cruise”.) It was an enthralling experience, in which I was exposed to more incredible sights and feelings than I ever could have imaged growing up in small-town Pennsylvania.  I was exposed to ideas and concepts that seemed to come from other worlds. I camped overnight on a safari, walked the Great Wall of China, and even stayed overnight in the home of the guy who invented the pacemaker. (Very long story there.) Our group also had the unique distinction of riding out an especially hairy winter storm, a potentially near-death incident that led to us donning our life jackets at 5 am (later featured on an episode of The Weather Channel’s Storm Stories).

That semester was a turning point for me in many ways, ultimately leading me to a stint in the Peace Corps and several years working in public service. Even now, words seem inadequate to really summarize the semester without reverting to the normal travel clichés – and I’m supposed to be a writer. Perhaps I know that I couldn’t capture the zeitgeist of that moment nearly as well as Professor Larry Meredith, who sent us away at semester’s end with a rollicking, heartfelt, profound, shaggy dog of a benediction speech.

Dr. Meredith was probably the most beloved professor on the ship’s faculty – a retired professor of religious studies at California’s University of the Pacific. A native Texan who never lost his drawl, Meredith was well into his seventies with several previous voyages under his belt when he sailed with us that semester. Meredith was a favorite of the student body – for one thing, he had a fairly risqué sense of humor for an evangelical Christian. And for another, he spoke from what seemed to be a boundless reservoir of wisdom as he shared his personal journey from a self-described “narrow” view on morality to someone who had grown to find great meaning in all of the world’s religions and perspectives. I probably had no more than one or two passing conversations with him myself, yet I still think of him often. At the time, we were just a few years removed from 9/11 – a belief in reconciliation and finding unity in our differences was the kind of hopeful message I needed to hear. It still is today.

In short, he was the perfect choice to close out that incredibly formative experience for my classmates (sorry, “shipmates)” and I. I’m reprinting his speech below (thanks to a copy I retrieved from the blog of a fellow alum). I 

It no doubt contains many references that are too specific to hold meaning to the outside reader – after all, specificity to the moment is one of the hallmarks of a great speech. But it also contains other elements that would resonate with the reader who never set foot on the ship. Decades of lecturing to students clearly gave him an innate sense of how to connect with an audience.  He organizes his message into a neat structure, summing up the semester in four overarching lessons. He tells specific stories that place the reader in the moment, describing what he was feeling at the moment of the storm we experienced on the roiling North Pacific. And finally, even as a towering intellect, he speaks from the heart.   

Charles Beard, the famed Columbia historian, was once asked if he could sum up what he learned from history in one sentence. He replied: “I could not do it one sentence, but I might do it in four.” 

1. The mill of the gods grinds slowly, but it grinds exceeding fine. 
2. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. 
3. The bee makes honey from the flower, but it also pollinates the flower. 
4. When things get the darkest, the stars come out. 

If I were asked to characterize this voyage, I might also do it in four sentences. 

1. When my eldest son and I were traveling through India in 1978, we stayed at an ashram in Rishekesh on the upper Ganges. One evening we listened to an old guru, who shared with us this remarkable bit of wisdom: “The secret of life is to shoot an arrow into the air, and whatever you hit, call it the target.” 

Pittsburgh’s way of putting the same point is “flexibility.” And the first half of this voyage has seriously stretched out our notion of flexing. San Diego, Vancouver, North Pacific, “angry green angels of the sea,” the Poseidon adventure, Midway, no way, Aloha way, Semester-at-Air to California, nine hour Impracticum in the San Francisco airport lounge, Shanghaied to Shanghai, Panda bearing in Hong Kong, and multiple world hoteling in Ho Chi Minh City shooting arrows in every direction. Fill in your own flexibility multiple choice target. 

2. I am because you are.

Which is the Buntu version of Tennyson’s famous line: “I am part of all that I have met.” [Ulysses ] A scary thought, that. If I am part of you then I’ll have to get a laptop, a digital camera, a cell phone, an I-pod, a tattoo just above my posterior, and four piercings (two you can see and two you can’t). May I have your attention please! I carry my valuables down there among my valuables, where no one goes without my permission! Good grief! Well, you better enjoy it, Kenn, because one of these days, no one will go there—even with your permission.

But its true. We are part of each other now. We always were, but we didn’t realize it until January 27. That is what we celebrated April 20, with song, dance, and satire—including The Dong Diaries’ testosteronic response to a women’s night of “Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Speak Of Your Vagina,” and a circle of deans, faculty and staff all dancing to the Beatles, singing “All You Need Is Love” –while Peter Baofu’s body was taken over by aliens. 

3. If you haven’t been to Waxahachie, you haven’t been to Waxahachie. 

My old ethics teacher at Southern Methodist University used to say that. He was an existentialist, which meant that actual existence was prior to the abstract essence of a thing. Waxahachie was a little town about thirty miles south of Dallas—and the point was plain. If you haven’t been there, you haven’t been there. You can watch slides and movies, hear speeches and lectures, read hand-outs. But the experience of Waxahachie will elude you. You have to go there. 

Now I doubt if John Tymitz or Max Brant or C.Y. Tung ever heard of Waxahachie, or thought much about existentialism for that matter. But their vision includes the idea that education can be as epic as Homer’s Odyssey: the great Buddha in the mist at Lantau Island, Varanasi at Shiva’s birthday, the killing fields in Cambodia, the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, the prison cell on Robben Island that held Nelson Mandela, the Slave Church in old Salvador, not to mention the paroxysm of sight, sound and apocalyptic yellow and green that is Brazilian soccer Semester-at Sea was born in this proposition: the sense of place is irreplaceable. 

It is not exactly a secret that SAS is difficult to administer. We all know that Utopia quite literally means “no place.” But our adventures in learning around the world can begin to break open our absolutes, and end our cultural apartheid. 

Not that this openness is automatic with travel. Some of us have remained intentional tourists, trying on different cultures like so many changes of dress, but remaining untouched by the fundamental differences we have encountered. 

Some students on this voyage have never ceased to ask me how a Christian can remain true to the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation and still accept other faiths as genuine paths to God. Or to say it differently, at what point does tolerance become treason? 

What does the phrase “multiple world views” really mean? It means just this: facts don’t determine what we think of as true. Our world view determines what we are willing to accept as fact. Facts are located by an angle of vision, and when the angle is different what we label as act is different. Did the sun rise on our shipboard Easter morning, or did the earth turn? Unbiased opinion is more rare than the opening of the Red Sea, and True Believers have no sense of irony. Ask any Muslim what he or she would accept as evidence that God did not dictate the Qur’an. Even such a question might be taken as blasphemous. 

Voyages are no guarantee of new vision. But just for a moment, when the usual cultural cues are missing or rearranged, when the full force of liberal education is pressed up against our prejudices, when what we are seeing no longer matches what we are feeling, transformation may be possible. Psychological studies suggest that children, until they are ten or so, think the whole world revolves around them. Make that twenty or thirty-six or sixty. Seventy-five, even. 

The Original Sin is exactly this: the whole world revolves around me. And I do mean me. Oh, I’ve run for God, but I’ve never been elected. Most of those who know me think I’m not even in the right district. This difficult and dangerous experiment in education, this Semester-at-Sea, moves us into so many places of consequence that we just might see how paralyzed we are by our cultural, intellectual, and religious autism. 

4. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but he doesn’t get the last word tonight. I say that the unlived life is not worth examining. 

And that takes courage. Not just the courage to sail, but to give up your comfort zones, to move into the unknown, and study under difficult circumstances. I mean real courage: the courage to give up your clichés: inscrutable Chinese, primitive Africans, idol-worshipping Hindus, fanatical Muslims, decadent Brazilians, treacherous Vietnamese. 

A booze cruise IS a ship of fools, insulated by consumption, and simply carrying the person you were around the world untouched. Semester at Sea is dedicated to making that difficult—if not impossible. We can risk growing up: as Zorba said “cutting the rope and being free,” as Joseph Campbell said “following your bliss,” or, as I would say it, risking openness on the open seas. 

And I am part of you. When the Titanic wave hit and baptized us into community, many of us were looking heavenward for a little assurance. Now the Lord and I have been close for years, and I remember sliding around on the seventh deck and saying, “Lord don’t you think we’ve had just about enough?” And a voice answered back—I have to tell you this was the real Voice— “Larry,” — we’re on a first name basis—“isn’t about time you renewed your commitment to live the life given you more abundantly?” “Abundant” is the right word. It refers to the waves of the ocean, undulating, never ceasing, always rolling on, wave after wave…after wave…after wave. Life. Abundantly. 

And during this adventure I have renewed my sacred promises and, as the last moment of my teaching career, share them with you now:

I promise to exercise my freedom by helping all others to be free, and to show my compassion by using things and loving people, rather than loving things and using people.

I promise not to impose my idea of morality on any other human being, engaging instead in probing discussion, honest exchange of views, and consensual allegiance to the common good.

I promise not to equate my nation’s cultural values with divine standard of behavior, or my own faith with absolute truth, believing that in the vastness of this one world there are many sacred paths.

I promise to give thanks every day for the life of the mind, for the gift of reason, and every community of inquiry that audits our ignorance.

And I promise to always have a little madness in my life, that I can pray and party at the same time, and that in the midst of the laughter, continue to love my family and the family of Earth.

So now, with some inspiration from Robert Frost, I say to you all:

The ocean is vast, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.