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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scaring You to Action

America's self-dubbed 'scary guy' offers his ideas for improving the world and ourselves.

BY: Stephen King

Excerpted from a speech delivered by Stephen King at the Vassar College commencement, May 20, 2001.

I have to tell you the scary truth, because that's my job. You know the old proverb, don't you, about the woman who carries the drowning scorpion across the raging stream? Once they're on the other side, it stings her and as she staggers to her knees, dying, she reproaches it for ingratitude. "C'mon lady," it says, "you knew I was a scorpion when you picked me up." And you knew I was the scary guy when you picked me for this job, so deal with it.

That human life is brief when placed in time's wider perspective is something we all know. I am asking you to consider it on a more visceral level, that's all.

What will you do? Well, I'll tell you one thing you're not going to do, and that's take it with you. I'm worth I don't exactly know how many millions of dollars--I'm still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I'm doing OK--and a couple of years ago I found out what "you can't take it with you" means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you're lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard.

If you find yourself in the ER with a serious infarct, or if the doctor tells you yeah, that lump you felt in your breast is a tumor, you can't wave your Diners Club at it and make it go away. My life, as it happened, was saved. The man who saved it was a volunteer EMT named Paul Fillebrown. He did the things that needed to be done at the scene, and then he drove me to the nearest hospital at 110 miles an hour. And while Paul Fillebrown may have an American Express Card, I doubt very much if it's a gold one or, God save us, the black one that offers double Frequent Flyer miles and special deals at Club Med.

We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life's simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we're just as broke. Warren Buffett? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. Steve King? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? How long have you got to be in the chips? "I'm aware of the time passin' by, they say in the end it's the blink of an eye." That's how long. Just the blink of an eye.

Yet for a short period--let's say 40 years, but the merest blink in the larger course of things--you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the hugest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you will create in your own image. That's your time, your moment. Don't miss it. I think my generation did, although I don't blame us too much; it's over in the blink of an eye and it's easy to miss.

Of all the power which will shortly come into your hands--gradually at first, but then with a speed that will take your breath away--the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country--resources you yourselves will soon command--but they are only yours on loan. Only yours to give for a short while. You'll die broke. In the end, it's the blink of an eye. I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale.
We have enormous resources in this country, but they are only yours on loan. You'll die broke.

Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All you want to get at the getting place, from the Maserati you may dream about to the retirement fund some broker will try to sell you on, none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

Here's another scary thing to think about before you leave here. Imagine a nice little backyard, surrounded by a board fence. Dad--a pleasant fellow, a little plump, wearing an apron that says YOU MAY KISS THE COOK--is tending the barbecue. Mom and the kids are setting the picnic table by the backyard pool: fried chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, a chocolate cake for dessert. And standing around that fence, looking in, are emaciated men and women, starving children. They are silent. They only watch.

That family at the picnic is us, ladies and gentlemen; that backyard is America; and those hungry people on the other side of the fence, watching us sit down to eat, include far too much of the rest of the world. Am I overstating? Well, America contains 5% of the world's population and uses up 75% of the world's resources, so you tell me. What we scrape down the kitchen disposal after Thanksgiving dinner for a family of eight would feed a Liberian village for a week, so you tell me.

We've elected an administration--I guess we elected them, we might as well say we did--that takes a dim view of charity as national policy. George W. Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism," an oxymoron right up there with "jumbo shrimp" and "humane execution." What he's talking about has been Republican Party bedrock for a hundred years; it amounts to, "Don't give a man a fish, give him a fishing pole and teach him to fish." (This, of course, would be before idiotic conservation and environmental policies render the whole concept of "fish" irrelevant.) My own philosophy--partly formed as a young college graduate without a job, waiting in a line to get donated commodities for the kids--is by all means give a man a pole and teach him to fish, but people learn better with full bellies. Why not give him a fish to get started?

Giving isn't about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It's for the giver. One doesn't open one's wallet to improve the world, although it's nice when that happens; one does it to improve one's self...I give because it's the only concrete way I have of saying that I'm glad to be alive and that I can earn my daily bread doing what I love. I hope that you will be similarly grateful to be alive and that you will also be glad to do whatever it is you wind up doing. Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs--on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us.

Right now we have the power to do great good for others and for ourselves. So I ask you to begin the next great phase of your life by giving, and to continue as you begin. I think you'll find in the end that you got far more than you ever had, and did more good than you ever dreamed.