Fall 2012 graduation speaker, Dennis Lehane, encourages graduates to be unafraid to fail

Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies fall 2012 graduation address was delivered by Dennis Lehane, Boston native and author of nine novels including the New York Times bestsellers Gone, Baby, GoneMystic RiverShutter Island; and The Given Day —as well as Coronado, a collection of short stories and a play. His newest book, Live by Night: A Novel, about the rise of gangsters during the Prohibition era in Boston, Tampa, and Cuba, was published earlier this month.

At the fall 2012 graduation ceremony, Dennis Lehane told graduates, “Don’t ask the things and people in your life to aid in your comfort; ask them to aid in the expansion of your knowledge.” Photo by Heratch Ekmekjian.

Following is a transcript of Dennis Lehane’s speech, which he delivered to the fall 2012 graduating class on Saturday, September 29, 2012:

Morning. Congratulations. This is a big day. Let’s have another round of applause, please. (applause)

I grew up not far from here, in beautiful, bucolic Edward Everett Square in Dorchester, or as we said, Edward Everett Squaeh, in Dohchestah. And people often ask — I did not come from a literary background. People often say, “Well, how did you end up becoming a writer if you come from such a non-literary background?” My parents were immigrants, they’re very working-class. Part of it is that I think I grew up in a very unique place. I grew up in a place where people talked very vividly. I also grew up in a barroom culture, and would listen to people tell stories. My father was a big storyteller. His family was a big storyteller. They were storytellers. They would get together every Saturday night and they would tell stories, and they would change the stories about every four weeks. So, they would essentially get together to lie.

So very early on, I realized that my culture and my family didn’t really like facts. They were after a different type of truth, what we call an emotional truth. So it’s surprising that my father could never understand exactly what it was that I did.   Right up until sort of the height of my success, he would call me every time the post office was having an exam, or to tell me that Boston Gas was hiring.

He only gave me one piece of advice in my entire life, specifically. He said, “Son, never be a landlord.” That was it. That’s what I got. Just never be a landlord.

But that’s not entirely true. That was the one he was very clear about. But we used to drive — he used to take me to work with him a lot when I was a little kid, and this was in Boston in the 1970s and the early ’80s, when there was a lot, a lot of racial strife. A major, major ethnic stratification was going on across the city. And in between where he worked and where we lived was Roxbury. And people during this age of great racial strife would go out of their way to drive around Roxbury to get into Kenmore Square. They would take 93 to get over to Storrow Drive to come down into Kenmore Square. My father thought that was insane. So we would drive through back streets, through Roxbury, to get over to Kenmore Square. And my father’s theory was, what the hell is there to be afraid of here? What are people afraid of? We’re all working-class people. We’re all together in this.

So the first lesson I ever learned from my father, without him knowing he was teaching it to me, was not to be fear-based. So many things are very scary if you don’t engage them.

I’ve always noticed that the most racist people, of any color I’ve ever met, come from places where they’re the only race around them. They’re the only people. Everybody looks just like them.

America was founded on the idea of the melting pot. Now, you hear people today blathering on about the dangers of multiculturalism, but that’s exactly what the Founding Fathers were after: a melting pot. A place where people from all social strata and cultural experience meet in the town square and engage in an exchange of goods and services and ideas. We didn’t say to the world at large, “Please leave us be. We’re going to breed from our own stock, thank you very much.” We said, “We need people. Anybody you got. You got a strong guy who knows how to build a bridge? We’ll trade you a boatload of tobacco and a few chickens for him. But otherwise, we’ll take anyone. We’ll take your poor. We’ll take a few of your starving. Hell, you got some huddled masses? We love huddled masses.” That’s what this country stands for.

It’s funny. After 9/11, one of the big questions was “Why do they hate us?” And there were several answers —none of which justify an act of unconscionable terrorism and hate — but a few answers that painted aspects of our foreign policy at the time that were less than flattering. But the reason I kept seeing — the primary reason I kept seeing, and the one I was very proud of — was the melting pot.

It’s no mistake that New York City was targeted. New York City is where you better park your fear and your prejudices, because they don’t have time for them .

They’ve got to cram 8 million people into one pretty small land mass and hire a few million of them as cab drivers. You don’t like blacks? Leave. You don’t like Koreans, Hispanics, Arabs, or round Irish cops, leave. You don’t like gays or lesbians, then you might want to stay out of Greenwich Village, midtown, the Upper East Side, the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side, Columbus Circle, Gramercy Park, Brooklyn, and the industries of publishing, theater, fashion, restaurants, and interior design.

New York is the ultimate symbol of America as the melting pot, and that’s why they attacked it.

Because if you’re afraid of other races or other religions or other belief systems or people with different sexual preferences than you, or people who may differ with any number of your opinions or preconceived notions, then you are afraid of ideas.

You fear thinking. Because it makes your head hurt. Because it exposes the rank stupidity of your personal narrative.

Melting pots, then, are great, and they’re great for the country. The problem is that a lot of people just want to keep their pot intact. They don’t want it to melt. They want everyone who climbs in to think and look like them, and soon all they will know of the world is the walls of their own pot. So they constantly fear that the other people out there in the great unknown, on the other side of the pot, are clamoring to get in — to which I would like to say: we’re not. Truly. Keep your pot. Just stop trying to tell me how to paint mine.

My father said, “What are you afraid of?” And I think, to this day, I’m afraid of the same things he was afraid of.

I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of catching a horrible disease. I’m terrified something bad could happen to my children or to my wife, and that’s a very abject terror. That’s the single greatest stress in my life, beyond every doubt. It stems from the love I feel from my family. A love so total that if I were to lose it, I feel like it would annihilate me. And that’s the fear of husbands and fathers everywhere. So I understand fear.

But what my father would say was own your fear. Don’t let it define you. Don’t act from a place of fear. Because then you’ll spend your whole life frightened.

And people who are always frightened are usually always also angry and self-righteously indignant, because one of their greatest fears is that people will figure out what wusses they truly are. That’s behind all their bravado and bluster and big Monday-morning-quarterback talk and tough-guy saber-rattling as they send poor people’s kids to fight the wars they would never dare fight themselves or sacrifice their own equally terrified offspring to fight is fear. And fear comes to the party dressed as a lot of things: patriotism of the wrap-yourself-in-the-flag-but-risk-nothing variety, populist rage, every-man-for-himself economic plans, and legislated morality, among other things.

Another thing my father taught me, also on those drives over here — well, let me back up for a second. I have a confession. I have road rage issues. To this day. I live two miles away from here, and on the way over I drove six cars off the road and shot a guy. (laughter) My road rage issues stem, I like to believe, from a deep and abiding anger at rudeness.

I can’t stand rudeness. I’m a Bostonian, so I’m impolite by nature, but rudeness is something else.

Rudeness is the guy you let into traffic who doesn’t give you the wave, or the woman you hold the door open for who doesn’t even look up, just keeps texting about last night’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians episode. So I can get easily set off, to this day, by people who drive me off the road because they chose the wrong lane and now they have to get into mine, like, immediately, or people who stop in a passing lane because they overshot an address. And let me tell you what I don’t degenerate to — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of keying a car. You may have — it’s a big thing where I come from. People key cars. A lot. In fact, there’s a differential — if you Southie-key a car, that means you key one side. But if you’re from Dorchester, you key both sides. (laughter)

But my old man, much like my wife now, he couldn’t fathom my road rage. It was the one thing he truly did not respect in me. And once I was driving him to work, not far from here at all, and I still remember exactly where we were. And I got angry with some guy who weaved into my lane or whatever, I don’t know. I laid on the horn and I blew around him and cut him off. Maybe I even gave him the finger, I can’t remember. At the next light, my father reaches over and puts the gearshift in park, and says to me, “Look at him.” And I looked over, and there’s the guy I cut off. But he’s not looking at me. He’s forgotten all about me. He’s just looking off into the distance, a working man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. I will never forget the look on his face.

And my father said, “Don’t judge anyone until you know what kind of day they’ve had and what kind of life they live.”

On that day, my father taught me empathy, which is not the same thing as sympathy. Sympathy’s easy. You have sympathy for starving children swatting at flies on the late-night commercials. Sympathy is easy because it comes from a position of power. Empathy is getting down on your knees and looking someone else in the eye and realizing you could be them, and that all that separates you is luck.

My old man never read any of my books. He told everyone he did, but he didn’t. I’d catch him at parties and he’d be like, “Oh, I love that Mystic River. That was a fine book.” I’d be like, “You didn’t read a friggin’ line.” And he’d be like, “Yeah, but they feel better.” He didn’t understand fiction. It just didn’t compute to him, outside of the storytelling that he did on weekends. He didn’t understand why people would want to watch movies. He took me to Star Wars, the only movie he ever took me to, mostly because I complained nonstop in the summer of ’77. And did anybody else notice that the ending of Star Wars looks just like this stage? Anybody? The first one? (laughter) So anyway, he took me to Star Wars because I browbeat him into taking me, and then he fell asleep within ten minutes. And in the beginning of Star Wars, they’re attacking the battleship, they’re kidnapping the princess — my old man just went right out. And he came out afterwards and he was like, “Thanks, that was good.”

When I sold the rights to Mystic River, I called my parents, and they did that thing that parents do to their children more and more these days, which is they moved down to Florida and got two phones, so then they get two phones on either end of the house and when you call to talk to them they each pick up a phone, which they think helps facilitate communication. But it doesn’t, because all they do is end up talking to each other: “Do you have the phone?” “Yeah, I got the phone.” “Who is it?” “It’s Dennis.” “Oh, it’s Dennis that’s calling?” “No — oh, Thomas is calling.” “No, it’s Dennis.” “Oh, OK. Do you have the phone?” And they go back and forth. They just lose you. This is a con — this is what parents do to their children.

So I called and I said, “I just sold the movie rights to Mystic River to Clint Eastwood.” And my mother says, “Oh, my. Clint Eastwood.”

In a tone of voice that really sent me into analysis, because I realized my mother had the hots for Clint Eastwood, which I never really wanted to know. (laughter) But my old man, God bless him, says “Who’s Clint Eastwood?” (laughter) And my mother says “Mike —” and then they lose me. I’m out of the conversation. She says, “Mike, you know who he is.” He says, “No, I don’t.” And she says, “Yes, you do.” He says, “No, I don’t.” She says, “He was in Westerns.” My father says, “Was he on Gunsmoke?” This is the last TV show my father ever watched. And my mother says, “No,” and he says “Then I don’t know who the hell he is.” (laughter)

Years later, he meets Clint Eastwood on the set of Mystic River, and he has this wonderful conversation with him, telling him how much he enjoys his movies, (laughter) and what they’ve brought to the family over the years. And Clint — because my father was kind of charming, and Clint is actually kind of moved. And then he leaves, and I turn to my old man, and I say, “You still don’t have any idea who he is.” And he says, “Not a clue.” (laughter) “Seemed like a nice man.”

Which is to say that at this point, again, my father didn’t really care about being on a movie set, you know. He was not impressed by what I did, or who I knew, because he didn’t know who the hell they were anyway, or how big my bank account was.

He cared about who I was. He cared very much about what kind of man I was going to be, going out into the world.

Would I be true to my word, particularly when it was hard? Would I act with honor in all things big and small, particularly when it was hard? Would I never forget where I came from?

Would I hold the elevator on the floor I got off, or would I send it back down for someone else to have the same opportunity to rise as I did? So I’m going to give you my last pieces of advice before you go out into the world. Don’t hold the elevator car on the floor where you got off.

Don’t act from a place of fear. Don’t ask the things and people in your life to aid in your comfort; ask them to aid in the expansion of your knowledge. Stay curious.

Don’t lean toward the lesser angels of your nature, but instead, cling to the better angels. Do unto others exactly as you wish done unto you. A little greed is good; a lot of gluttony is not. It is, in fact, un-American. Don’t be afraid to fail — unless you become a heart surgeon… more particularly, my heart surgeon… in which case be damn afraid of failing. But everyone else, knock yourself out. What’s the worst that can happen?

You learn more from your failures than you will from your successes. So be unafraid to fail. In fact, revel in it. I do. I have.

And if all else fails, remember to take the postal exam, just in case.

Good luck. I hope you lead full and interesting lives. 

More about graduation

To read about the College of Professional Graduation Ceremony on September 29, 2012, visit: Graduation speaker, author Dennis Lehane, demonstrates how a career is shaped by life experiences.

To read about the College of Professional Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on September 28, 2012, visit: A celebration marking the completion of studies at the highest level.

The College of Professional Studies celebrates two graduations, fall and spring, in keeping with the College’s flexible approach to education offering an array of options to students including part-time and full-time studies, Fast-Track, online, and hybrid formats. Graduates earn diplomas in 61 different degree programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.

Learn more about graduation.

Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) is committed to providing career-focused educational programs that are designed to accommodate the complex lives of motivated learners. Offered in a variety of innovative formats, CPS courses are taught by accomplished scholars and practitioners who have real-world experience. The result is an educational experience founded on proven scholarship, strengthened with practical application, and sustained by academic excellence.

Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a comprehensive, global research university. The university offers more than 80 undergraduate majors and more than 165 graduate programs, ranging from professional master’s degrees to interdisciplinary PhD programs. Northeastern’s research enterprise is aligned with three national imperatives: health, security and sustainability. Northeastern students participate in co-op and other forms of experiential learning in 90 countries on all seven continents.