In a couple days, the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, NH, is giving me an award. This is very gratifying, if undeserved. They offered me three or four minutes to speak, and I will likely use that time. I don’t often speak from a script, so any remarks I make will be extemporaneous, entertaining and entirely unprepared.
If I were a serious man, a man who delivered speeches instead of a man prone to jackassery, this is what I might say, after saying, “Thank you for this award”:
I am a man of a Christian country, who grew up among Jews and who has become friends with many Muslims. The differences among us are many—from the foods we avoid, to our dress, to the ways we worship our creator. One thing we share is a love of stories. Whenever people gather in a marketplace or at a fire in the forest or desert, stories are told. Our nature seeks a good story the same way we are drawn to food and sleep. I see the Old and New Testaments and the Koran as collections of tales designed to entertain as well as enlighten. If the stories in them were not good ones, the enlightenment would have been left behind long ago. Imagine an instruction book for life with no stories. It would be nearly unreadable. While the Ten Commandments may be the center of the Book of Exodus, not many readers would reach them without the story of Pharaoh and Moses and the, well, exodus of the Jews. Humans love stories—in fact, it may be our love of stories that makes us human.
Stories can be diagrammed, broken down into telegram versions, the bare bones of the story. One of our favorite stories could be diagrammed like this:
- A man walks a righteous path
- The man loses his way, whether through distraction, attacks from others or a taste for sin
- The man sees the light of the righteous path and returns to it
This is my personal story—I defended my country, then taught and led people, then became a drunk without a home, then returned to lead Liberty House, which might well be called Library House, for it is a storehouse of such tales, of men and women who defended their country, lost their way, then saw the warm glow of Liberty House’s fire and returned to lives of meaning and hope. Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of any faith, or no faith at all, seem drawn to this story, the return to health of a man beset by sickness, the redemption of a man from a life of sin, the rediscovery of a man who had been given up for dead.
Each of us, if not this very evening then tomorrow certainly, will come across a human whose story remains unfinished, who is at the middle part, the straying from righteousness, and each of us has a choice at that moment. We can become some small part of heat, light and compassion, whether through a smile or kind word, a meal purchased or comfort offered. Or we can continue to walk past. If we choose the latter, I ask you one question: what good is your fire, your light, if it doesn’t warm and brighten the path of another? I am a man who has stood in the darkness, who has gazed into the faces of people who will not meet my eyes, who learned to accept scorn and judgment from strangers who knew nothing of me—and I know how much the occasional light of others meant to me. I have pledged to share my light and my warmth—and I ask you to join me in that effort. You can help change the arc of someone’s story, help them return to life, help transform their entire universe. Or you can walk on.
Earlier this week, I posted the speech I wouldn’t give at Thursday’s Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner. A number of folks made me promise I’d give a report on what I actually did say, once I’d said it. Before I do, though, I have to say how gratified I was by the reception I received. Despite my inability to maintain high seriousness, the guests gave me a standing ovation. (As evidence of that gravitas drought, I am tempted to call it a standing “ovulation,” then go into a lighthearted discussion of how men participate in such a practice.) I was deeply moved by this, and want to thank everyone in attendance, which includes my three daughters, making the moment one of the most moving in my life. Thank you all.
As for what I said, I can only give my recollection, since I spoke from no notes but entirely in the moment. As background, the evening’s keynote speakers, Katrina Lantos Swett and Y. Alp Aslandogan, spoke specifically and movingly about Turkey’s transformation to dictatorship under President Erdogan. Each of them outlined how fascism is introduced into a country—first through insults and demonization of the opposition, then through expulsion/detention of the “other,” then through emergency measures that become the norm, and so on.
My memory of what I said follows:
My introduction said I’m known for doing the unexpected. I’m afraid you may be disappointed with what I’m about to say, but it will be unexpected. In listening to this evening’s speakers talk of the rise of fascism in Turkey, I could only think of one of my favorite book by one of my favorite authors, a book I first read 40 year ago. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, written in, I think, 1936, tells the story of the rise of fascism in America, a fascism different in some flavor from that in Europe, but not in its deadliness. I don’t think our current administration is leading to fascism, but the similarities among Lewis’ book, the story of Turkey and events today are too great to ignore. When you hear It Can’t Happen Here, the only proper response is: the Hell it can’t if we don’t stand up!
Given my general longwindedness, I’m sure this is just a sketch, but it is an accurate sketch.