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Eckerd College Commencement
Speeches and Remarks

Commencement Address
Dennis Lehane '88

Man, it's early. I became a writer specifically so I could escape knowing what the air smells like before noon, and now here I am. In fact, the last time I got up this early may have been when I graduated from here 17 years ago, and I was late because I'd been up all night being, um, social. So, hey, how are the hangovers this morning?

I want to thank President Don Eastman and Deans Lloyd Chapin and Jim Deegan and, of course, Sterling and Kathy Watson and all the staff who've been so wonderful to me, not only recently, but throughout my whole relationship with Eckerd which has now officially reached it's 20th year. I've decided not to let all this PhD stuff go to my head, except for this weekend - one little weekend - when I'm going to ask everyone to address me as "Doctor." You have to understand - I graduated from high school with a less-than-spectacular GPA, no clearly defined career path, no real sense of what I wanted to be or could be, and then I dropped out of the first two colleges that were nice enough to accept me. I look back on my late teens and early twenties and the phrase that occurs to me again and again is this: My poor, poor parents. So for me to stand before you today and tell you to follow the strict career path of college-to-corporation-to-junior-partner-to-corporate-board would be disingenuous. (And if you don't know what "disingenuous" means, then the faculty here is really starting to slip.)

I've been to a few commencements myself, sat where you're sitting, so let me dispense with the traditional bromides right off the bat: Dare to dream, follow your heart, be true to your school, don't forget the values your family and elders gave you, blah blah blah...

I just don't know if I can stand up here and do that. You're about to go out into the world, and the world, as we've left it for you, is in pretty bad shape. Neo-conservatives will have you believe that the solution is to get back to a rosy-hued 1950's America that never existed. Ultra-liberals will have you believe the solution is to build a Utopia of politically correct speech and politically correct values where nobody offends anyone and no one does anything bad or messy and, as far as I can tell, everyone will die of utter boredom. I see the world through your eyes, and I think you must be bewildered because I'm bewildered. I ask myself, Where do we turn for honor anymore?

Forget justice, forget truth, we'll just take honor - people and organizations acting honorably. But last time I checked, no one expected honor of our government. We can't even get them to hold onto the sacred separation between church and state, which many proud, smart men died fighting for, so who'd dare to ask for honor? In terms of our religious institutions, they're either trying to tell us that what "Jesus would do" is vote against hate crime legislation or, like the Catholic Church during the child sex abuse scandal, turning into a corporate board, and the corporate boards of the world are sadly often exemplified by Haliburton, home of "outsourcing" and "nation building," not to mention Enron and Tyco and all the other robber barons who wrecked our economy and dummied up behind the Fifth Amendment. We've set a very bad example for you folks, very bad. We were supposed to make the world a better place, and instead, it seems more unstable than it has ever been.

The good news is that it's pretty much always been thus. The world, since the dawn of the time, since the first cave man sold his neighbor a faulty club and used the extra shekels to put a wide-screen TV on the wall of his cave...the world has often worked on the same over-riding principle: If it's not about the money, it's about the money.

But is this the world you want for yourself? I hope not. I hope you realize what the people doing their best to wreck the world have not: That it is not about the money. It's about honor and whether you have any.

Honor isn't Mother Theresa in Calcutta. That's sainthood. Honor's a day-to-to-day thing, a small gut-check. Honor is not doing what's easy if doing so hurts a single soul. It's the affirmative answer to one simple question you ask of yourself every day: Did I behave with dignity and respect toward all living things? That is the measure of honor and the measure of a human being.

If you're cynical, you'll say, "I wasn't honorable today because the world was dishonorable toward me and I had to fight back." Sorry. Wrong answer. The measure of a person lies not in what the world does to him, but rather in how he responds to the world. When someone says, oh-so-jadedly, "The world is thus," you must reply: "No. Thus, have we made the world." Put another way, hell is not a pit of fire with horned demons jabbing at you or poor Kenny from South Park. Hell is not, as Sartre said, other people. Hell is you, after you've sold off your soul and realized it doesn't have a twin.

It's been remarked upon by enough friends and acquaintances for me to trust the opinion that I'm a pretty self-sufficient guy. As a person who came from so-called "humble" origins to rise to the point where I can get really good seats for Patriots games, have occasionally hung out with movie stars, and had my books read by Presidents (well, the Presidents who actually, you know, read books), I guess I'd be a poster child for those who make a good living by trafficking in the myth of the self-made man, the "pull-yourselves-up-by-your-boot-straps" folks who shovel code words like "American individualism" down our throats just when they're closing the door in our faces and leaving us to sleep a night in the cold.

I'm not a self-made man. This "self" was made with the help of others, many of them right here at Eckerd College. And, trust me, it's no mistake that of the three men in MYSTIC RIVER, the one who turns out okay is Sean Devine, the one with solid, loving parents. And that's because Sean's parents were a testament to my own parents. I wanted to pay tribute to good people who kept their heads down and worked two and sometimes three jobs to raise their kids and didn't complain. People who raised their children to do the same, to believe in self-reliance and a lack of whining. But - and this is so important - who also raised us to be very aware that so much of self-reliance comes down to luck. The luck not to need a helping hand, the luck not to be completely alone in this world, the luck to have been born the right color at the right time in the right country. In essence my parents taught me empathy. Not sympathy. Sympathy is easy - it's always given from a position of power. You sympathize for someone - the starving child on late night commercials, the person who lost their trailer in a tornado, contestants on American Idol. But when you have empathy, you empathize with the person. You put yourself on equal footing. Sympathy is easy. Empathy is hard.

I remember driving with my father once and someone cut us off and I got all hot and asked why he wasn't beeping his horn or flipping the guy off and my father said, "You don't know what type of day he's had." And I looked into the other car, and I suddenly didn't see a jerk who'd cut us off in traffic, I saw a weary-looking guy with a weary- looking wife and two cranky kids in a battered old car and I felt, "There but for the grace of God go I." That's empathy.

Since 9-11, something's happened to our empathy in this country. I don't know what exactly, but it ain't good. I wrote a novel in which all the characters have perfectly good and understandable reasons to be angry and they only commit acts of violence and vengeance once they're sure they're right. And yet…they're wrong. I think human beings are at their most dangerous when they lose their empathy, when they objectify other human beings, when they are so sure they are right they feel justified in a take-no-prisoners attitude. And I don't know when mercy and decency became signs of weakness in this country.

There is an angry, loud and unfortunately popular contingent in this country that will have you believe empathy and mercy are for cowards. No, callousness and apathy are for cowards; empathy and mercy are the province of the brave. And even though this contingent's loudest mouths all came from wealth, and the only bootstraps they ever pulled up were made of imported Italian leather, they will have you believe that the future of our country lies in the lack of a helping hand and the striking motion of an angry fist. This contingent has made themselves popular by feeding off our innate need for anger. They offer no solutions with the exception of placing more wealth in the hands of those who don't need it. (To put it another way, I need another tax break like Brad Pitt needs help with dating.) Meanwhile they assail everything that's good and intrinsically American and pure in this country - the right to free speech, the right to love whomever you choose, the privilege of helping others less fortunate than you, of educating our children, of ensuring a good life for our elderly, of caring for our sick. They want to privatize education and privatize Medicare and privatize Social Security and privatize you right out of the very things that make this country great. I know another word for "privatize" but I can't use it because I'm in polite company. Make no mistake about it, these are the same people whose ancestors and ideological compatriots from eighty years ago were against Social Security, workers comp, disability insurance, affordable health care, pensions, the eight hour day, the forty hour week, the weekend, women's right to vote, blacks' right to vote, integration, and special benefits for veterans…all the while wrapping themselves in the flag and telling us what America is.

But America is not about exclusion. It's about inclusion. All of you out there, you're America. And you're white and you're black and you're toffee colored and you're Asian and Indo-Asian-Slavic-American with maybe a Frenchman somewhere back in the woodpile. You are your parents and their parents and they worked hard so their offspring could work hard so that you could be born here and go to this school and graduate with all the other offspring who can trace their ancestry back to Northern Europe or the Russian Steppes or the Ivory Coast or Honduras or Manchuria or Yemen or the Dutch Antilles and every place in between. Anytime you engage in looking down on anyone, categorizing anyone, for any reasons to do with race, class, sexual preference, or religious beliefs - anytime you presuppose that you know what's best for a population that you share little in common with, then you have disengaged from empathy. And lack of empathy is the most un-American attribute of them all. Because we are all, damn near every single one of us, the multi-generational offspring not of kings or captains of industry - but of the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. That is America, a country founded on empathy.

So the next time someone pulls the "libel-by-label" card and trots out tired, stale cliches about "the bleeding hearts," ask them what they stand for. Not what they stand against. What they stand for. And if all they can come up with is some lame BS about a "family-values" world where the family is white and wealthy and the values are something you decree while driving your Hummer to the golf course, then ask them to please keep driving that Hummer over the Mexican border and out of our country because they, my friends, are un-American, not us. And if you ever think about demanding that someone pull himself up by his bootstraps? Ask yourself if you did. Or did you - maybe - have some help? From your parents? From friends? From this great institution?

Because this is a great institution. With only two exceptions, my closest friends are people I met here. My agent, Ann Rittenberg, went here. Sterling and Kathy Watson and Peter and Jeannie Meinke have become, over the years, friends, not just teachers, not just mentors, and all those bonds reach back through the mists of time to this idyllic little place on the Gulf of Mexico. When I came here I was a pasty Mick from the inner city of Boston. You couldn't be more of a fish out of water. And like a lot of twenty years olds I was, well, kind of an idiot. (No, because, hey, all twenty year olds are idiots. I hate to break the news to you - but all you know when you're twenty is that you're twenty.) So I lived in absolute terror that I would never measure up to my crazy dreams, that I would end up back in the old neighborhood tending bar, having guys call out, "Hey, Hemingway, bring me another Bud, would ya?" And I was a tad on the wild side, a little reckless, a little angry, a whole lot cocky. I was bouncing off walls because I was so scared, again, at what this cold, mysterious world was going to ask of me. And Eckerd - this place - chilled me out, calmed me down. It was like a great collective effort by which the faculty and staff and fellow students and the whole ethos of this campus said, "Relax. It's okay. Remember - you're only twenty. You're an idiot. Watch a sunset, switch to decaf, take a deep breath. And then…try this idea on for size. It's new to you, sure, but it's interesting. Kick the tires, take it for a drive…And get back to us."

That's empathy. At a campus-wide level. And whenever I think back on this place, that's what I see. I see people, not buildings. I see individual attention and a boatload of caring. And I think of the highest compliment I can pay any person or institution: The world is a better place because Eckerd is a part of it. It's that simple.

This has been your home for four years, and the cool thing about a home - as opposed to a house - is that you carry your homes with you. Throughout your life. Someone can take your house, but you can never lose your home. This is a home.

So as you go out into the world, take this place with you. I don't know of anyone here whoever got rich by enriching your life. By changing you. By teaching you. By touching you and lifting you up when you weren't sure you could take another step. So if it is all about the money, what are we to make of this place?

That it isn't about money. Or anger. Or hate. Or objectification. This place - this little home in all your hearts - is about what's noble in mankind. It's about empathy. The helping hand, the shoulder to lean on or cry on, the passing on of accrued wisdom and experience, The Dream - that it is within the realm of possibility and the realm of our individual hearts to be better, not worse. To be considerate, not reactionary. For each of us, in effect, to be like this place. And for the world to be better for each of you passing through it.

Go have one on me and congratulations.

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