Tulane University - Commencement Address,

May 16, 1998



Thank you, Dean Cummings, and my thanks to the Class of '98.

Thank you for inviting me to be here with you.

Thirty-two years ago, I graduated mid-year from Tulane. I received my diploma by mail. I didn't attend my own graduation. So it seemed only fitting that I accept this gracious invitation to revisit my Alma matter and, finally, a commencement ceremony. I know it is yours, but believe me, it feels as if it were mine as well.

I think back on my years here. There is much that I remember, much that I don't. I remember the weather, the torrential downpours, and the tactical advantage of leaving your books at each class because whatever you had on or about your person hadn't a chance of staying dry. I remember beautiful evenings. I remember the French Quarter and all that it promised, sometimes delivered. I remember Spanish moss, streetcars, and beautiful homes. I remember the unique native accent. I remember eating with impunity. And drinking… with impunity. I remember classes I enjoyed, others that I survived, some barely, and a few not at all. I remember Irving Ribner (Ph.D. University of North Carolina, Professor of English), who taught "Shakespearean Literature, to a class of 60 people, and me, or so it seemed, because it was that special. I remember Monroe "Doc" Lippman (Ph.D. University of Michigan, Professor of Theatre), who ran the theatre department with a passion and a caring that touches me to this day. And I remember the R.O.T.C. Drum and Bugle Corps jamming, not marching, beneath the stands of the Sugar Bowl. I remember the Cuban missile crisis and where I was and what I was doing when President John Kennedy was assassinated. I remember being in my 20s and full of passionate intensity and an extreme need to believe, and do, and be something, someday.

I wasn't a great student. Or even a good student. I had it in my head that I wanted to be an actor. Tulane had the reputation of having a good theatre department. It was a long way from home. And in the '60s, you went to college, at least I went to college, ready or not, because that is what you did, what your parents and their generation needed you to do and trained you to believe you must do because their security, and therefore yours, lay in an education and the diploma to prove it. And so, with the exception of my goal of becoming an actor, and my spoken rationales of my parents’ belief system, I spent a good deal of my time in the University Center playing pool and trying to figure out just what it was I was doing here.

I am not saying that I was the "norm." I was haunted by the norm, or, rather, what I perceived as my distance from it. I am sure a part of me yearned as much for normality as my ego wanted me to be special. I know I wanted to belong. To that end I joined a fraternity. I carried 22 hours my first three years, switching majors from theatre to English literature and back again as I tried to avoid those courses that held no interest for me. I acted in a majority of theatre department productions, worked myself into a state of exhaustion, took a leave of absence, went to study in England for half a year, came back, fulfilled my scholastic obligations, and graduated.

And though this route may seem somewhat tortuous and circuitous, there are two things that I know. I was searching, and Tulane in New Orleans was where I was searching. It could have been any of a number of schools and cities, but it wasn't. It was here. And I have to believe that we were uniquely suited for each other in that we both survived.

I spent my summers doing stock and repertory theatre. Then off I went to Boston University for a master's degree in fine arts… then an apprenticeship of waiting tables and tending bar in New York City.

An off-off Broadway experimental play led to another, then two Broadway plays, a soap opera, my first film, Fiddler on the Roof, shot in five and a half months in Europe. Then more television, which led to a television series, which made me a celebrity. There upon I made the decision to give up acting and become a director; that took approximately ten years. After directing five feature films, I decided to write a screenplay from my heart. I have been at it for a year and a half, and am humbled by the process of writing and the education it is conferring upon me.

My personal life has been its own journey. I married in my late 30s; we had two children. Upon the birth of the first, my wife was transfused with tainted blood, and over the next 10 years I lost my wife and daughter to AIDS. I have since remarried and have my thirteen and a half year old son Jake, who is healthy and HIV positive. I have a beautiful daughter, Zoe Anne, who is seven and a half months old, and Tracy, my wife, my wonderful partner, my lover, my friend, who has courageously joined her search with mine. For that I am truly blessed, and truly thankful.

My "journey, my "search," I also use other words to describe my life: my "mirror," my "meditation." When I viewed my life from where you are right now, I saw everything in terms of goals. Things to accomplish, to own, to create. And my identity, my worth, my sense of who I was, tied to my ability to achieve those things. That's what I had been taught. Or at least that's what I had understood. Life has taught me to understand otherwise, and now I stand before you, honoring you on this commencement day, wanting to help pass the torch that you shall carry, along with your dreams, goals, needs, and expectations, into the millennium.

And I have discovered in the process of writing this speech that that is not so easy. Our generational gap is filled with my ignorance of much of your world. I can only guess at how much more information you have been bombarded with thus far in your lives. And how much more worldly you are now compared to when I was your age. I watch my son's world and can only surrender to the speed and brilliance of it. I do not want to presume. I want to honor your journey, your desire to be heard, to make a difference. To celebrate yourselves each day as valid, worthwhile, successful, loved, happy, and fulfilled. For you're about to step from a world that has protected you from much of life's difficulties, so that you could pursue your interests with relatively little interference, into a world that, while replete with opportunities and possibilities, is, at its worst, a cold, indifferent, and fearful place. And as well fortified as I was with my energy, passion, ideas, and dreams,… there was a part of me that asked, however quietly and secretly: "How was I going to do this?", “Would I be able to do this?" "What if I couldn't do this?" "Then what would I do?" "Who would I be?"

And through all my successes and failures, all the unexpected turns that my life has taken, these questions have not gone away. They have only gotten louder and more frequent. When I graduated, I, like many of you, defined myself by my goals. I was going to succeed as an actor, achieve fame, recognition, be a part of the "American Dream." Yet I found that as soon as I had accomplished that goal, there was another, and then another. I wasn't appreciating the process. I was just questing for the tangible reward. And no matter how hard I worked, how fast I ran, how much money I earned, what I accomplished, I couldn't avoid the questions of identity and self-doubt. And I couldn't avoid the place from which they came. I couldn't avoid my fear. I had never been taught how to deal with fear. As I grew up, we didn't talk about it, for fear that if we did, it would raise its ugly head and never go away. We'd play with it, in our movies and books, even in our sports, pitting ourselves against ourselves and one other, playingout dramas of victory and defeat. Yet when it came to our daily lives, fear was something to be ashamed of, pushed down, and hidden beneath anger and rage, envy, jealousy, complacency, boredom. It was something to be run from, avoided at all costs. "What's there to be afraid of?” we'd ask. "I'm not afraid." "There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear was the enemy.

I didn't know I was doing this. It's just that there was no place for "fear"' in my life. I couldn't afford to let anything keep me from realizing my potential, keep me from feeling good about myself and my need to be able to conquer whatever I attempted, to be able to reach my goals. And then my life made fear inescapable. There was nothing I could do to save a wife and daughter. There was nothing I could do in the face of their mortality… or my own. I was powerless. I had no control. Somehow, when I think of your world today, given the amount of violence, disease, and chaos to which you are exposed, and the degree of proximity in which you live to the rest of humanity through television, and computers, and air travel, I have to believe that your experience of powerlessness, of no control, is greater than mine ever was. I am not going to presume to know to what extent you do or do not experience fear. From your vantage point, I have to believe that right now, all things are possible, that you can and will move mountains, and that your belief, your faith in the future, are unshakeable. I do not want to diminish that one Iota. On the contrary, I want to share with you a lift that has been given to me. I want to share with you what I have learned about fear.

Two days ago, when I was struggling with this speech, Tracy reminded me of an expression: "Our greatest fears are like dragons, guarding our greatest treasures." We live with fear from the moment we are born. We don't need great tragedy to show us that. Tragedy will always get our attention and bring that reality abruptly to our consciousness. But there's enough reminder of our mortality, of our powerlessness in this world, that, whether we want to see it or not, in one form or other, our fear is manifest, if only in our need to control it, to maintain an illusion that we have some power over this life and its brevity.

And anything that puts us in touch with that feeling of powerlessness, whether it is someone doing something different from us, not the way we would have done it; someone looking different; or someone hurting, or threatening us, being violent, killing, destroying; or someone who is sick and seemingly beyond our help, with poverty, ignorance, with cancer or AIDS,... any time we get to experience that, we are powerless, it brings up that primal fear and perception thatthere is nothing we can do, that we have no choice. And we want to turn away.

But we do have "choice." Our animal nature knows no choice; it is concerned only with survival. Our human nature can see our animal fear and can choose to acknowledge it or turn away from it. When we choose to acknowledge it, we exercise our power and ability to choose, to be conscious, to acknowledge our humanity, know our fear, and in doing so,… in the act of making that choice… honor ourselves in our human struggle, honor ourselves for who we are, find compassion for ourselves, and from there, compassion for others, and discover that we are all in the same boat, the same struggle. We're all here together, as, ONE, with the same fears, same dreams, same goals, same needs.

What does this have to do with vou, today, on this, your graduation day? It has to do not only with how you choose your goals, but how you choose to pursue them. It has to do with your expectations. It has to do with how you choose to experience your successes and your failures. Today you celebrate having accomplished a goal: you're getting your degrees that you've worked hard for, partied hard for, crammed and jammed hard for. Success. You deserve it, and, God willing, you will go on to more success.

And yet, there's a saying that the only thing more difficult to deal with than failure is success. Everything in our society is geared towards success and its monetary rewards; look at our advertising, films, our athletes; you've got to drive the right car, wear the Armani suit, get the beautiful girl, the right guy. There is nothing wrong with having all of those things. And, yet, if you expect any of those things to tell you who and why you are, to give you a sense of life and love and purpose, you may wake up one day, to quote the Talking Heads, saving: "This is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful life." And if you look back on these past four years and tell the truth, along with all the success,… you did experience obstacles, you did experience disappointments, even failure. And I believe we are defined not only by how we experience our successes but by how we deal with our failures, how we overcome our obstacles, how we interact with that fear that we are not enough, have no power, cannot be, cannot do, know ourselves,… who we are.

And it becomes interesting to see that when we do not choose to acknowledge that fear of our powerlessness, our aversion to that fear will have us pursuing success to protect us from our fear, keep it out of mind, out of sight and we will pursue that success at all costs. And, conversely, we will suffer our failures at great cost. Because if we fail to succeed, we are truly powerless, and then what are we? Who are we?

Our "success" is, ultimately, in our ability to acknowledge our fear, and in doing so, experience our ability to love.

"Our greatest fears are like dragons, guarding our greatest treasures ." One could even go so far as to say that we need that fear in order to transcend it, that that dragon is there to help us discover our treasure. And that our choice to acknowledge and accept our fear, confront that dragon, is an empowering choice that enables us to love ourselves for the sheer doing of it.

Whatever our goals, whatever our dreams, when we know that whatever goals we aim for, our over-riding choice, the common theme to all our actions, is to experience our capacity to love ourselves and one another; then we are only successful. You are stepping onto a moving train. Nothing will stand still. Everything is moving, everything will change. You, I am sure, have dreams, big plans. You probably have an idea of who you want to be as defined by what vocation you have chosen. And I say vocation because it implies a way of life, not just a job.

I hope you choose, ultimately, to follow your heart and learn that, whatever your plans, your goals, your dreams, life will take you in directions that you haven't even imagined. Be open to the pathnot chosen, the door unopened. Welcome your fear, and those choices that allow you that fear. There are those of you who will set out to be a doctor, only to become an artist, an artist will become a businessman, a soldier a priest, and through all thesechanges, through all the disappointments and unexpected turns, the victories and the pain, the losses that you will experience, there win always be a constant. Along with your breath, there will always be one thing that you will know: that you have the ability to choose your heart.

That's what we are doing here today. We are choosing: to acknowledge not only what we have done, what we have learned and accomplished, where we are going and what we intend to do, but also how we are going to do it. And we are celebrating each other in our individual as well as communal desire to make that choice. We are celebrating our capacity to love, and the power of our knowledge, because from that comes our power to heal. And the world needs healing; it seeks healing. We have only to look around us to know that the world hurts, its people suffer. . It needs its scholars and athletes. It needs its warriors of knowledge. It needs your help to remind and help it to remember. It needs you to hold the light and show the way, to champion our hearts and celebrate our humanity. It needs this love, this communal and conscious choice. It needs remembering.

And its need is our need. And when we can acknowledge that, it only makes us stronger, our hearts fuller, and all things within our grasp.

You, the graduating class of 1998, are going out into this world with your goals, be they material success, scholastic achievement, athletic prowess, you name it. And some of you win achieve what you set out to do, and some of you won't. All of you will experience change in direction, happiness, disappointment. Things never go the way they plan. The universe rarely gives us what we want, always gives us what we need. If you are open to these changes, you are one step ahead of where I was when I graduated. But then I experienced your generation as generally one step ahead of ours. You are ever so resourceful, environmentally conscious, deeply caring individuals. I hope you never stop asking the questions, "Who am I' "Who do I want to be?" "And how do I want to be?" For it is in the asking that we define ourselves. So go out there and confront your dragons, and you may find that they are angels in disguise, and that your ability to embrace them will define you in ways that you never thought possible.


Congratulations, good luck, and Godspeed.



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