Author Ellis Cose to students: "Speak inconvenient truths"

August 24, 2016

The following speech was given by journalist and author Ellis Cose at Northwestern University in Qatar's 2016 Convocation ceremony:

Thank you Dean Dennis, members of the faculty, staff, family, friends and, above all, the students of Northwestern University in Qatar. And an especially warm welcome to you new students, the class of 2020, to those who are taking residence on this campus for the very first time. I promise you that you are in for quite an experience.

I say that because you inevitably will look back upon you time here as a pivotal period in your respective lives. Just ask your colleagues who have been here for a while, or those who have recently left. Nothing you have experienced before quite prepares you for college; and nothing you will experience later offers you quite what you will have here.

Everybody here has a story. And your stories and your experiences are all different. They reflect a combination of different opportunities, individual choices about life, and variations, for any number of reasons, on what you seek from a higher education. But there is something universal about the college experience. It is a time to become whatever you aspire to become, to actually be reborn, in a sense. It’s a time to relish and enjoy—a time offering freedom unlike what you will experience at any other point. It’s a time of reflection, and of myriad possibilities—some of which you can already see and some of which will become clearer later. And it allows you to defer, at least for a while some fundamental questions: What will my life mean? What will I do with my time on this earth? No matter how smart and reflective you are, that’s never an easy question to answer.

“Nothing you have experienced before quite prepares you for college; and nothing you will experience later offers you quite what you will have here.”

In a letter written while he was at the University of Copenhagen, Soren Kierkegaard compared young adulthood to a flower at dawn. He called youth “a lovely dewdrop in its cup, harmoniously and pensively reflecting everything that surrounds it.” But that restful break, he warned, will not last forever. “Soon the sun rises over the horizon, and the dewdrop evaporates.” And then one must produce, by his own efforts, “a drop that may represent the fruit of his life.”

The fact is nobody produces much of anything by his or her own efforts alone. All of us who achieve anything have an immense amount of help. Never mind that we have a presidential candidate in the United States who pretends otherwise. Who arrogantly presents himself as a fully self-made man, a builder of fortunes and skyscrapers, when in fact, everything he has constructed was built on the vast fortune, knowledge and contacts left him by his wealthy dad.

Kierkegaard knew better. He knew that realizing one’s potential took a lot of help, that it required attention from skilled and caring hands, that in required above all, as he put it “that one be allowed to grow in the soil where one really belongs.”

In that regard, everyone here has a huge advantage. Great universities, by their very nature, are like huge fertile fields designed to nurture ideas, aspirations, and the very souls of the young—and sometimes the not so young. This is clearly true of this institution, whose original campus was founded in Evanston outside of my hometown of Chicago by Methodist abolitionists. It says much about the founders’ vision that, generations later, Northwestern continues to nurture students around the globe as they seek to develop themselves and find a purpose.

Some time ago, I met an architect who, in the course of a relatively short conversation, shared something that I thought was fascinating. Her specialty was designing and overseeing the construction of buildings on college campuses. So I asked her whether there was a project that she looked back on with particular pride. She named a complex at a large American university. If she accomplished nothing else in her life, she said, she had created at least one thing for which she would be proud to be remembered.

Her comment made me think. Although I have published ten books, a handful of scholarly monographs, hundreds of articles, and produced well-regarded documentaries. Although I had run an institution that trained scores of journalists and fathered a smart, creative and talented daughter. Although I have given scores of speeches, and been involved, in one way or another, in countless interesting projects… Despite all that, I am not sure that I can say that I have yet produced anything for which I hope to be remembered.

The question—what do you want to be remembered for?—is just not all that easy to answer. And it is made even more difficult by the capriciousness of life itself.

But one reality is indisputably clear. In order to make anything of your life, you have to live and embrace your life.

The very fact that you are here means that you have already decided to embrace life and its challenges as opposed running from them. Not everyone makes that choice.

 In one of the most famous passages in literature, Hamlet talks about life’s burdens at length—about its pain, its slights, its hatreds, its unending challenges. And .though Hamlet comes down in favor of life, he does so only because the alternative is too scary to contemplate.

Compared to Shakespeare, Albert Camus is absolutely buoyant. The question for him is not whether death is scary but whether life, taken on its own terms, is worth living.  He gives his answer, at length, in The Myth of Sisyphus. Despite life’s absurdity and seeming ultimate futility, he suggests, we can find meaning, and therefore purpose, in our humanity and in the struggle to sustain it.

The title, The Myth of Sisyphus, comes from Greek mythology. King Sisyphus so infuriated the gods with his trickery, insolence and superior intelligence that they condemned him, into eternity, to push a bolder up a hill, watch it roll down, and then to push it up again. And yet, even in this most soul-destroying task, Camus saw the prospect of hope: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” he wrote. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

That book, with its combination of gloom and optimism, was written in the early 1940s. Civilization was in turmoil. The world had not yet emerged from a global depression. Adolph Hitler, Nazism and Fascism were very much in the foreground. Germany was in the process of invading and partitioning France, where Camus lived. China was at war with Japan. Francisco Franco, El Caudillo, had established a dictatorship in Spain as had Benito Mussolini in Italy. The League of Nations was collapsing. Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement, in the doomed hope of appeasing Hitler.

No wonder Camus was gloomy.

Our time is not fraught in the same way as it was at the dawn of the Second World War; but we do live in perilous times. Freedoms are threatened all over the globe as many question the value of life itself.  Although poverty is slowly shrinking, the vast majority of people still live in deep economic distress, even as billionaires multiply.  The environment is deteriorating at a frightening pace, raising questions about whether the coming generation will have healthy air to breathe or a planet that is livable. And, perhaps most frightening of all, we are overrun with violence and anger.

“My community was portrayed not as a place made up mostly of decent human beings but as a jungle, teaming with menace that needed to be contained. That was not reality. It was not the truth as I or anyone I knew saw it. Someone needed to let Americans know that. And why, I reasoned, shouldn’t that someone be me?”

Look at any newspaper or news website and the crises seem unrelenting. Nearly half of Syria’s population is displaced and hundreds of thousands there are dead. There is ongoing tension and the threat of violence in Turkey, Libya, Burundi, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the list goes on.

Angry people find all kinds of incentives to kill; and they don’t have much trouble finding tools of destruction. So mass killings proliferate all over the world, for reasons profound, profane or petty. Love denied, respect not given, demons unexorcised, personal failing unbearable, piety misdirected, a yearning for glory. All those things and more motivate people prepared to die and kill and to spread messages of hate and revenge.

This is the world in which we live. This is the world you will inherit and have to navigate. Given what that world has become, if you are a thinking human beings, it’s impossible not to be gloomy at times. In this world, it is often a challenge just to live—much less to seek meaning and purpose.

The architect I  mentioned earlier is fortunate. Good deeds can be easily forgotten; wise words can quickly vanish in the air; but important structures tend to stay behind. When you think of the great civilizations throughout history, the mind often goes to structures: The Egyptian Pyramids, The Alhambra, The Parthenon, The Colosseum, The Taj Mahal.

But massive structures are not the only things for which you can be remembered. At the very least, you can leave behind your good name. If you are so blessed, children may be your legacy. And, if you can find a forum, you may contribute ideas and insights that tell a larger truth.

Many of those here are thinking about careers in journalism or in some other aspect of communications. Some of you hope to share your vision as filmmakers, or spread noteworthy insights and content as great communicators. Let me offer a few thoughts you might find relevant.

Nearly two decades after writing The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech in December 1957, he declared that a writer “cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.” He went on to talk about the importance of giving voice to those who had no voice, of breaking the silence imposed on an “unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world.” He talked about speaking truth and serving the cause of liberty.

Very few writers—or content providers, as we are called today—are as noble as Camus imagined. The truth of the matter is that one can make a great career serving the powerful, taking notes on the doings of those who make history, accepting the comfortable assumptions of those who need not listen to the powerless, who sometimes even take pride in their distance from the disadvantaged. But some of you, I trust, are not particularly interested in giving a megaphone to those who already have one. And for you, Camus’s challenge may resonate.

I remember my own motivation for getting into journalism—and I started writing for a Chicago daily when I was still a teenager. Like everyone who enters any field, I had many reasons. But if I had to point to one thing that propelled me, it was the experience of being a black kid in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. I saw much of my community destroyed by riots that erupted for reasons too complex to spell out here. Suffice it to say that they reflected anger at the prevailing notion that some lives mattered much more than others, anger at America’s refusal to integrate poor urban minorities into the American family. That anger still burns in many quarters.

I paid particular attention to how the Chicago newspapers covered those riots, as it was the only time, in my memory, that my neighborhood was making front-page news. And I found that coverage to be raw, sensational, inaccurate, and totally lacking in nuance. The picture the local papers painted of my neighborhood bore practically no resemblance to the community I knew. My community was portrayed not as a place made up mostly of decent human beings but as a jungle, teaming with menace that needed to be contained. That was not reality. It was not the truth as I or anyone I knew saw it. Someone needed to let Americans know that. And why, I reasoned, shouldn’t that someone be me? 

Over the years, I have covered and written about many things, in the United States and elsewhere. And I have always been struck by how similar the laments of the voiceless can be and how desperate they are to be heard. Whether it is the Maori in New Zealand, the Dalits in India, the Roma in Bulgaria, the indígenas in Peru, or those struggling to make themselves whole after emerging from the hell  of South African apartheid, their voices hit many of the same notes as they speak of the need to check power with truth. Some of the work that I am most proud of has come from listening to those voices.

My life, of course, is not your life; the path I have taken will be quite different from the one you take. Many of you have no interest or desire in practicing journalism. You will find another way to contribute. That journey, for many of you, will start here; so suck all the wisdom you can from this great university; and don’t worry about sucking it dry. There will always be more knowledge to take its place. Use your time here as an occasion to look out on the larger world and find a place that both needs and deserves you, to find your next plot of soil where you really belong.

“Over the years, I have covered and written about many things, in the United States and elsewhere. And I have always been struck by how similar the laments of the voiceless can be and how desperate they are to be heard.”

Finally, let me go back to Kierkegaard.

Life, he said, must be understood backward but it must be lived forward. We only see the true significance of what we have done by looking back. And we never know what the future will bring, though we have to make decisions about it all the time. So even when we are stuck performing senseless and repetitive tasks, when we are most unclear of what path lies beyond the present, we must, like Sisyphus, embrace life and find hope in what is not yet seen.

The great humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, embodied the attitude of reverence for life. He argued that in embracing life, in taking ownership of the will to live, we could not help but take an interest in the world around us. It was the gift of life itself, he said, that “affords me my fundamental principle of morality… that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life.” To destroy, harm or hinder life was evil, in his view.

It is a very simple thought but one that is hard to argue with—whatever field of work you may find yourselves in. Every day that we are not preparing to die, we are betting on another day of life. And if we are to bet on ourselves, we must also bet on others, even if that is not our natural inclination.

As Schweitzer argued, even a self-centered person “is never completely so. He must always have some interest in life about him. If for no other reason, he must do so in order to make his own life more perfect.”

What I take from that is simple. It starts with a reverence for life and a commitment to be a good citizen of the world. And if you hold to those values, it’s hard to see how you can go wrong. Whatever you end up doing for a living, I hope you will find yourself taking those principles to heart: that you will speak inconvenient truths, that you will champion those less powerful than yourself, that you will endeavor to leave this world no worse off—and hopefully better—than it is.

Please enjoy your day. Congratulations on all your accomplishments. I salute those yet to come.