20 May 2012, Yale, Connecticut, USA
You look absolutely marvellous. What a sight. Good afternoon. Congratulations to this wonderful class of 2012. Exuberant graduates, relieved parents, loving friends and exhausted professors. I am really so honoured that you've given me the privilege to address me in what is so a special a day for you and special to me as well. My hats off to you. I want to tell you first about this hat. When I arrived I was greeted by a most wonderful and welcoming lady master Pamela Laurens and who said to me, "Would you like to go upstairs and wash up?" I said, "I don't think I need to." She said, looking at me, "Yes, you're right. You already are washed up." Where is Pamela? Anyway, she made up for it. This is her hat. As you heard a few years ago I wrote my memoir. It was called audition. To me life has been a continuous audition.
While writing the book I had to do some research on my family including my paternal grandmother Lilly whom I had never met. She was evidently a very elegant and fastidious woman. On her deathbed she turned to her seven children and told them that she was a virgin. They said, "Well, how is that possible. We are here three sons and four daughters. You must have done something with grandpa." She said, "Yes, I did but I never participated." When I was asked if I would come here today if I would talk with you I said to myself, "These kids are smarter than I am. These kids are younger than I am. They are better educated, but by God I am going to participate." It's a daunting task, because I'm used to talking every day on television, usually with four other women who interrupt me all the time. Today it's a great joy to be able to speak uninterrupted. I was trying to think of what I could tell you that's going to make the least bit of difference in your lives, even 10 minutes from now.
When I went to college I went to a very small college called Sarah Lawrence, back in the middle ages. I had a professor who became very well known. His name was Joseph Campbell and he exhorted us all to follow our bliss. Do what you love, follow your bliss and you will truly be successful. It was great advice, except when I graduated from college I hadn't a clue what I really loved. I had no bliss to follow. When I look at all of you today I think many of you do know what your bliss is. Graduate school, or medicine or law or biology, ecology, sociology. How about none of the above? How many of you in this graduating class truly know what your bliss is? Raise your hands. Isn't that interesting. Not that great a number. How many of you do not know what your bliss is? Raise your hands. Don't be afraid. Most of us don't. I didn't find my bliss until I was in my 30s and then by luck. That's another story.
When you walk out of here and everybody, every friend, every family member says, "What are you going to do? What are you going to do?" Just tell them you haven't yet found your bliss. I did finally find my bliss and I have had a professionally blessed life. As you learned I've interviewed every US president and first lady since Abraham Lincoln. The terrible thing is, is that there are some of you out there who really believe that. It's really been since Richard Nixon. I have interviewed world leaders from Fidel Castro to Vladimir Putin and this past December Syria's Bashar Assad. I should know something about leadership and some message that I could give you. I decided that what I could offer you most today is the wisdom and the stories of some of the most thoughtful people that I have been fortunate enough to talk with over the years. I think their words, rather than just mine, may help to answer your own questions and your own quest for bliss.
Much of what I will talk to you about has to do with choices and much of what you will be facing tomorrow and in the years ahead are choices. Let's start at the top with President Barack Obama, as it happens, as you heard, I interviewed him on the view just this past Tuesday. I asked privately if he had followed his bliss. He said yes. He became a community organiser. Then I asked what jobs does he think are available during these tough economic times. He said the best jobs right now are in science and engineering. If that is your bliss you are fortunate. You will be among the few with a job open for you. In the newer interview I asked the president what, as a young man, he thought he would be doing.
This is what he answered; "I had a bunch of different schemes. For a while I thought I might end up being an architect. I like the idea of building buildings. I didn't know what happened to that. I still really admire architects and I love looking at buildings. Then for a while I thought that I might be a basketball player until I realised that I wasn't good enough to be a professional basketball player. I thought I might be a judge, but then I decided after going to law school that I was probably a little too restless to sit on the bench all day long. The one thing I know I didn't expect was that I was going to be president of the United States." I said, "Well, when you've named all the things you couldn't be, the only thing left is to be president. Isn't it?" He said, "Yeah, I guess if you've got to find some use for yourself this isn't a bad way of doing it."
From president to a woman who wanted to be president, one day she still may be, and that is our secretary of state, Hillary Clinton; One of the most admired women in the world and her personal story is very much about choices. At one point in her history she had one of the biggest choices a person could make. A president's fall from grace, a marriage in shambles, a nation embraced. This from an interview with Hillary Clinton in 2005; "You're life has been about taking chances and making choices Mrs. Clinton. What is the biggest choice that you had to make?"
She said, "Staying married to my husband. I'm often asked why Bill and I stayed together. All I know is that nobody understands me better. No one can make me laugh the way Bill does. Even after all these years he is still the most interesting, energising and fully alive person I have ever met. Everyone has a choice every single day about how to live your life. I know that many people looking at my life would say, 'Oh my goodness. How tough.' I look at it differently. I look at the lessons that I've learned, the opportunities that I've had." I ask, "What's the most important lesson you learned?"
She said that life is a gift and that we learn as we go and that love and hope and faith are truly the most important gifts that we can have and that we can give to one another and that when something difficult happens you have to decide what's important to you, what your priorities are. You have to listen hard to your own heart. There are always going to be people who have different ideas about decisions and choices that you should make, but ultimately we are born alone, we die alone and the life we make, the journey we take is really up to us. From Hillary Clinton to the Dalai Lama. He's one of my all time favourite leaders. A man without a country, a man regarded by many as a God who calls himself a teacher and was given his title when he was two years old, the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet. I went to talk with him and Dharamsala in India. As you know he's been exiled from Tibet.
I went because we were doing a two hour special called Heaven; Where Is It And How Do We Get There? I talked to a great many religious leaders from the different faiths. Most said the purpose of life is to go to heaven or to paradise. The Dalai Lama, when I asked, said, "The purpose of life is to be happy. How do you get to be happy? Through compassion and warmheartedness. You achieve those qualities in part by abandoning all negative thoughts and feelings of competition." For about three days after the interview I practised what the Dalai Lama had taught me. I practised compassion. I was extremely warm hearted. I was not jealous. I had no negative thinking. I smiled a lot. I was so warmhearted and I was exceedingly boring. In truth, the Dalai Lama did give me a lot to aspire to. His was not a lesson lost. Compassion and warmheartedness. So simple and so hard to do. I've tried to practise both.
While I'm speaking of compassion I want to say a few words to this graduating class about friendship. Look around. Look at the people next to you, the people behind you. The people you say may be the most important take away of your years here. The friends that you have made here at Yale may be the best experience you could have. They will continue to be a part of your life long after you may, heaven forbid, forget the name of your professor and even whatever he taught you. I have little family. I have one daughter. My friends are my family and your friends have been the steady part of your growing experience here at Yale. Treasure them. Make the effort to stay in touch with them beyond Facebook. Treat them with compassion and warm heartedness. Do not lose your friends from your life.
Well, I want to talk now about having it all. Men and women today are faced with choices that a of your parents and grandparents didn't have that is you want to have a private life that's important as well as a career. You want to be involved with your children. You don't want to leave it up to daddy or leave it up to parents. How do you have it all? There are still choices that you will make. One of the greatest problems you will face and one of the greatest joys and perhaps triumphs is balancing this life. The career, the relationship, whatever it may be, the children. I thought what I would do, really because I just love it and it's fun, to tell you about Katharine Hepburn. Do you know who she is? Good. Well, some of you are saying, "Who? Which? What?" She was a great actress. She died in 2003 at the age of 96 and she was a beloved icon, in part because she was so definite about everything. She talked like this and she was very definite.
I remember coming back from the Middle East and we were talking about something. She said, "I see things in black and white. Don't you?" I said, "I've just gotten back from the Middle East. I'm afraid I see things in shades of grey." She said, "Well, I pity you." I talked with her. She had married once very young. Never married again and had a long affair with the actor Spencer Tracy. She had a great career. She never had children and she did not have a great marriage. I said, "Can you have a career and a marriage and children?" She said, "You couldn't when I started. At least you couldn't have a marriage that would please me because the ladies are going to have to be careful that they don't all marry morons." I said, "Why?"
She said, "Well, because they don't deliver the goods as wives. We're very confused. Sexually very confused. Look at the birds and the beast and the male and the female. There are very definite types. We're getting awfully confused. I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a middle road, but I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man." I said, "How so?" She said, "Well, I've just done what I damn well wanted to and I made enough money to support myself and I ain't afraid of being alone." I said, "Is it so hard to have it all? The marriage, the children, the career? I think myself it's very tough. Much of my life has been a balancing act."
She said, "It's impossible. If I were a man I would not marry a woman with a career and I would torture myself as a mother. Suppose little Johnny or little Katie had the mumps and I had an opening night? I'd want to strangle the children. I would really want to strangle the children. I'd be thinking to myself I've got to get into the mood. What's the matter with him. Then out of my way." You see? I said, "If you were a man you would not marry a woman with a career?" She said, "I wouldn't be that big a fool. I'd want her to be interested in me, not a career. A career is fascinating. I don't know what the hell the women are going to do, or the men, so welcome to the life of choices." Then my favourite part of the interview did not have to do with choices.
I said to her, "Do you remember the last time we talked? I did something that I have regretted ever since. We were talking about your getting on and you said, which people don't remember, you said, 'I'm like an old tree.' I said, 'What kind of a tree?' You said, 'I'm like an oak tree.' I said, 'Right, everybody forgets that you said you were like a tree.' On my obituary it's going to say she asked people what kind of tree they want to be. Why did she ask that wonderful Katharine Hepburn what kind of a tree, right?'"
She said, "I wonder what kind of a tree people are all the time. Don't you?" Do you ever wonder what kind of a tree your best friend is?" "Well," she said, "You didn't mean that question? I look out and I know I'm not that damn sycamore in the backyard that drops his branches and is liable to kill people. I'm not a silly piddling little tree. I am a wonderful oak tree. I saw one this big around in the woods. A while oak with branches that go right through the wall. Great like that." Symbolic. That's okay.
Speaker 2: I'll take it off.
Barbara Walters: You'll take it off. We were talking earlier when I was having lunch with some of you about Margaret Thatcher. I didn't write down her interview because I didn't know how many of you would remember her, but then I realised that there was a movie, The Iron Lady. What I learned from Margaret Thatcher was how to live with failure. She had been the first female prime minister, the longest raining prime minister. Then her own party kicked her out. I interviewed her right after she was no longer prime minister. She was in a very depressed stage. She said, "The telephone rings and I think I must answer it and I must go back to Downing Street and then I realise that isn't me." She said it is so important, and you're so young now, and you're just beginning, but you will, I hope not, but you will perhaps have some failure. You will be able to go on, add a new chapter, have a more interesting time even. When I went to ABC to be the first female co-anchor of a network news programme I was a total flop.
The headlines in the paper said, "Barbara Walters, a flop." I was in anguish, but the best thing that happened to me was that I had to work my way back. That's when I did all the interviews that we've talked about. If you have a failure you will rise. You will be fine. You will work your way back. Do not sink into why me, woes me. It's not my fault. To give you an example of that I want to read to you the words of a man named Christopher Reeve. I'm reading this to you because life, sometimes, brings enormous difficulties and challenges that seem just too hard to bear, but bear them you can and bear them you will. Your life can have a purpose. Christopher Reeve's life did. Let me remind you of who he was. He was a fine actor. He was famous for playing Superman in films and he was superb athlete. He sailed, he skiied. Most of all he was a great horseman until 1995 when his horse failed to jump over a hurdle in a riding competition.
The horse fell, he fell with it. He found himself completely paralysed from the neck down, this man who had been this adventurer and actor and athlete. His wife came into him and she said, "Chris, if you want us we will find the way to pull the plug." He was lying in bed with the tubes, completely immobile. She said, "Remember, you are still you." Which had two connotations. You are still you and you are still you. She left the room and a doctor came in, in a white coat with a heavy accent. The doctor said, "I'm a proctologist. Turn over." Reeve looked at this doctor as if he were insane. The doctor said, "I told you. I told you. Turn over." As he was about to try to find some way of getting a nurse, or someone instead of this crazy doctor, he looked up and he realised it was Robin Williams. He had gone to Julliard with Robin Williams and he burst out laughing.
He said, "If I can laugh I can live." These are the words of Christopher Reeve. "You gradually discover, as I'm discovering, that your body is not you. The mind and the spirit must take over. That's the challenge as you move from obsessing about why me and it's not fair and when will I move again, and move into well, what is the potential. Now I see opportunities and potential I wasn't capable of seeing. Every moment is more intense and valuable then it ever was. I've received over 100,000 letters from all over the world. It makes you wonder why do we need disasters to really feel and appreciate each other? I'm overwhelmed by people's support of me. If I can help people understand that this can happen to anybody that's worth it right there, so I really think being in a journey." I said, "Do you think you will walk again?" He said, "I think it's very possible that I will walk again." "And if you don't?"
"Then I won't walk again. As simple as that. Either you do or you don't. It's like a game of cards," he said. "If you think the game is worthwhile then you just play the hand you're dealt. Sometimes you get a lot of face cards and sometimes you don't. I think the game is worthwhile. I really do." He got to the point, after years of doing exercise and experiments where he could breath without a respirator in this throat. For the first time, because he didn't have the tube in his throat, he could smell a rose or taste coffee. That was an enormous accomplishment. He had some feeling in his chest. When I hugged him, the last time I saw him, he could feel the pressure. He could feel the hug. He made a good life, Christopher Reeve did, with his wife Dana and their three children. He lectured, directed films, raised millions of dollars and the consciousness of scientists to promote research into stem cells hoping that he would be able to cure the thousands of people suffering from spinal cord injury.
His life, though very hard, had meaning and purpose. His death in October of 2004 was a great loss. What have I tried to say to you as you enter this brand new chapter of your life and what I hope is going to be a long and fulfilling life with a lot of different hats that you'll be wearing? Don't worry about finding your bliss right now. Not even our president knew what his bliss was, nor did I. One of these days, to your own surprise, your bliss will find you.
No matter what you do don't be like my grandma Lilly. Participate. Be there full force, full heart, full steam ahead. In making choices when in doubt trust your gut. Does this feel right? Does this feel good? Remember the decision is ultimately yours alone to make. Remember this today when you're talking with parents, friends, grandparents. The decision is ultimately yours alone to make. When jealous, angry or afraid try compassion and warmheartedness. Nourish your friends and finally whatever hand you are dealt I hope you will find the game worthwhile. I do. Rarely have I been happier with the hand that I have been dealt then I am today with the honour and pleasure of meeting you. I thank you and I hope that your life will be like a great white oak. I thank you.