Christopher Reeve's Address to the Williams College Class of 1999
President Payne, Trustees, ladies and gentlemen, and particularly the graduating class:
I believe I know what you're thinking right now: "I've made it through four years here, please don't let this speaker put me to sleep. I'm sitting here in a hot spot and it would be very easy to drop off and this guy's going to talk about the meaning of life." Well I don't know anything about the meaning of life, except that sometimes gravity is not your friend.
I think I learned that the hard way but out of that has come some new knowledge and new insight and an opportunity perhaps to do more with my life than I might have done otherwise. And that's really the key message today█how to build a platform to stand on that will be strong enough and secure enough to bear the weight of any event that comes your way, a structure that will support you and your family throughout your lives, because without that platform, without that base, you'll be lost.
I think there are basically three groups around the time of graduating from college. There's a group that is on a track of absolute certainty. They will already know what they want to do and have plans to pursue, goals that have already been established. I remember that I was one of those students, having decided by the time I was fifteen that I was going to be an actor no matter what. I made a deal with my parents that I would go to college and try to learn something because actors are not renowned for their wide ranging knowledge. And also how about Plan B in case I was a miserable failure as an actor? So all that time I spent at college was time of experimentation, a time of growth, of learning, and of being able to make mistakes without serious consequences. I think that those of you who are on that path, who really know what you're after, that's a good thing and good luck with that.
The second group I think is a group that needs to make sure to do some self-examination and that went along because of what was expected of them. There was this track that other people have put you on from high school when the next step is college, then the next step is something that may have been following in a parent's footsteps or doing what others expect of you. To that group I would say, really take a good look at it because this is your life, not somebody else's. You've done a lot of hard work to get where you are. And now it's your turn, having met all the responsibilities and obligations that others may have put on you. It's your turn to figure out what you want to do with it.
And then the third group is an interesting group. And that is a group of people who really don't' know. Someone says, "What are you going to be? What are you going to do with your life?" And they have the honesty to answer, "I really don't know." I think that's a really brave answer and a very courageous answer, but it can lead to very rewarding and very profound discoveries about yourself.
I'll give you just as one example one of my brothers who I admire tremendously. He graduated from Yale with a degree in English and in the mid-80's taught at St. Alban's near Washington, and taught English to privileged prep school students and he found this was not for him. So he joined the Peace Corps and this journey took him to Africa, to the small country of Togo where he built schools and housing, got to know the people, taught English, was deeply involved in the culture, and then he helped in their first democratic election and from this came a job with the National Democratic Institute, which goes around the world monitoring elections in emerging democracies. It took him to Burundi, it took him to Belize, it took him to more countries, Indonesia. He was still on a path of discovery but he had the satisfaction of knowing that what he was doing was productive, and useful. He still hadn't found his call yet. He was still searching both personally and professionally for what his life's work would be.
He did this for six years until finally he realized that it was time to come home and that he'd like to have more possessions than a knapsack full of clothes, and he decided that what he wanted to do was go to business school and get a degree and then go and help the economies of developing countries, and that's what he's doing now. It's landed him on his feet, it's the platform on which he's going to build his life, and he went through a fascinating journey to get there. What he accomplished in 10 years of searching until he could honestly answer the question "What do you want to do? What are you going to do with your life?" And he can say "Well, it took me a while, I'm now 36, but I found it."
I think the most important thing you can do for yourself is don't stop short of finding that activity--that profession--that will truly give you satisfaction. So you can honestly say "I'm spending my life doing something that really has meaning for me."
And now, beyond meaning for oneself, I think there should be a component that gives back, that has meaning for other people, because that's what comes back to you. All that time that he was looking for meaning for himself he was serving other people. And that brought him genuine happiness, even while he was on the search for what to do with his life. What I fear sometimes is that people use college or university or post-graduate work to find some occupation that is really just self-serving, but what we have to realize is there's a big difference between finding something for yourself and finding something that's going to give back to others.
There's a much greater satisfaction in being involved in some kind of pursuit that's giving back to the planet. I mean, there's six billion of us on the planet, and the planet is hurting. I mean physically it's in danger and there's suffering everywhere, and whatever we have to do is find some way to make a contribution to turning that around, and though sometimes I know you want to have fun, you want to have a good time, you want to go out and do something that's a good time--that's a reward for having gone through college or university or post-graduate work.
But there's a big difference between fun and satisfaction. And satisfaction will last you a lot longer than just having fun. There was once a showjumping instructor, a man named George Morris, who was giving a class to a group of students who were jumping, and one woman was not doing very well. She was knocking down rails and not riding particularly well, but she had a big smile on her face, and George Morris said to her, "What do you seem to be so happy about? You are knocking down the rails, and you're generally riding quite poorly." And she said, "But I'm having fun." And he said to her, "If you would concentrate and really take this seriously and really be in the moment, and really do this, you would have satisfaction--the satisfaction of knowing that you're doing your absolute best--and that would bring you satisfaction, which is a lot more rewarding than just having fun."
I bring this up simply because if you do something that is truly satisfying because it's what you really want to do with your life, it's your decision, nobody does it for you. You go through the difficulties, you meet the challenge, you take on something difficult, that's going to build the platform of satisfaction and it will be a basis for having a rewarding life, if everything goes well, and it will also be a way to cope if things go wrong.
A lot of people have said to me, "Well how do you get through this, I mean something really terrible happened in 1995, it changed your life." I said, "Well, if I had to describe it in a nutshell, yeah, I'm not going to have nearly as much fun as I used to have, there's going to be a lot that I can't do, but how do I get through it? Because there's a platform that was built after 28 years of being an actor, facing rejection, learning the discipline of giving your best eight times a week, having made that commitment for something that I wanted to do with my life."
I had a platform. Now, it took me a little while, but I saw that there was an opportunity, not something I would have chosen but something that's absolutely fascinating, because I was injured at a time when research into the nervous system and the brain is progressing very rapidly and will ease a tremendous amount of human suffering.
So I don't fight just to get myself out of a chair, but to help push science and to find the funding to allow our best researchers to conquer inner space, the frontier of inner space, which involves Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, MS, ALS, stroke, and it's going to be a truly fascinating journey, because there's going to be a vaccine for diabetes, there's going to be a vaccine for AIDS, we will be able to stop the spread of Parkinson's, we will be able to re-myelonate nerves in MS, and we will be able to regenerate the spinal cord.
It's an incredible time--incredible moment of opportunity--and I feel that if I hadn't built a base long ago, I wouldn't be able to deal with it. But along with my family and friends, the support of so many people around the world, I'm able to go forth in a way that I never would have thought possible. And we all have this inner strength within us--nothing special about me, anybody can do it if they just rely on that solid base or foundation that you build starting now with the education you've received.
If you take the opportunities that come your way, as long as they have some component of giving back to the world, the flow and ebb of your life will work There'll be ups, there'll be downs, there'll be times when things make sense, there will be times when they won't, but you'll be out on an adventure that's a lot more exciting and meaningful than just doing what's expected of you by other people. So I hope that each one of you starting today begins a personal journey that has real meaning for yourself and that you find the satisfaction out of it that's going to last you a lifetime.
Good luck. Thank you.