The following is a transcript of the lecture I gave to the students of Madison High School last Friday:
Thank you and thanks so much to your wonderful teachers and faculty for having me here today. Truth be told, if any of my former teachers were to hear that I, Bill Fripp, had been asked to speak to a group of high schoolers about the importance of goal setting and education they would undoubtedly laugh out loud. I was NOT a model student as I'm sure all of you seated here today are. In fact, when I showed up for my thirtieth high school reunion I was informed that was I still suspended from all school functions until I returned the fuses for the lights in the football stadium.
That being said, I'm here and the theme for our little discussion today is the freedom of choice, the power you each possess to exercise it and the responsibility that comes as a natural byproduct of it. Some call it cause and effect, which is a condensed description of a theory by a man named Isaac Newton. How many people know who Isaac Newton was? For those who may not have heard the name or a certain story involving the gravitational effect the earth has on apples, Sir Isaac Newton was a seventeenth and eighteenth century English physicist and mathematician who many believe was one of the smartest men that ever lived, responsible for the law of universal gravitation, the creation of calculus and the three laws of motion, the third of which we will discuss today, namely , "For every action in nature, there is an opposite and equal reaction," and this is as true in our personal lives as it is in the natural world, which, after all, we are all a part of.
Every decision you make, whether good or bad, has a consequence; for good decisions, generally the consequences are good and with bad decisions, the consequences are almost always bad. The choice is the important part, the ingredient that makes the outcome more predictable, the moment wherein one can stop and think about the impact the consequences, good and bad, will have on oneself and, perhaps more importantly, the impact they will have on those who may or not have a part in the decision in the first place.
Of course, not every decision we make has to be life altering. Some choices are more important than others. No one will be greatly impacted by your choice of which cereal to eat in the morning or which American Idol you prefer. But when you have an important decision to make, like whether to stay in school or to speak up when you see someone being bullied, or whether to take that drink or smoke that cigarette, take the time to consider that without a high school diploma, your chances at success in the business world plummet; put yourself in the shoes of your classmate being bullied and ask yourself how it would make you feel for someone to care enough to speak out and rescue you; think about the people you know of or have heard of who drank themselves to death or who have lost their lives to cancer. Every choice has a consequence; it may be instant, it may take months, it may even take years.
Two years ago, I went out to dinner with my wife Valerie, had two beers with my fish, came back home and fired up the PS3. At about 11 o'clock, I began having pains in my stomach. By three AM the pain had increased and I had begun to vomit. By five AM I was in the emergency room. Within the next four hours, I had moved from the emergency room to intensive care and from there to life support and was placed in a medically induced coma, where I stayed for five weeks while Valerie waited by my bedside for me to recover, but expecting me to die. I had been diagnosed with acute necrotizing pancreatitis, which is a fancy, twenty dollar way to say my pancreas popped. While I recuperated for the next three months in the hospital, I learned why, out of the clear blue sky, my pancreas had decided to abandon its post; it wasn't something that just happened for no reason. It wasn't the fish; it wasn't the two beers. It was thirty years of my life wasted drinking as much alcohol as I could drink, eating all of the wrong foods and basically abusing my body, at first because I thought it made me popular with my peers, but then because it became easier to get hammered than it did to take responsibility for my life and make the right decisions. And it very nearly killed me. Anyone who tells you that, given the chance to go back in time, they would not change a thing they'd done, that they don't have any regrets, is either lying or has led a really boring life. I would change more than one thing, I can tell you, though you'll have to use your imaginations to know which ones, because I'm not talking! Suffice to say, I have made some decisions that hurt people, and though hurting them was not my intention, there is no doubt a more thought out and less compulsive decision would have spared them that pain. But, we cannot travel through time, we cannot unring those bells once they've been rung and so we are chained to the reverberations forever, bound to the shame that they cause and responsible for the harm they impart. So, you have the freedom to make your own choices, but like everything else, freedom is not free.
You don't need anyone to tell you you're free; no government, no religion, no authority on earth can grant you your freedom, because you were born with it. Others can only infringe upon it or take it from you and then only if you allow them to. You can enslave yourself, chained to dogma and doctrine, or you can live free, thinking for yourselves and making your own way in the world with integrity and pride. It's all a matter of choice.
Choice is the catalyst. What you choose to do and, sometimes more importantly, what you choose NOT to do have more direct impact on your life than money or power or fame could ever have. Through the power of choice, mountains are moved, hunger is abated, houses are built, roads are cut and lives are changed and each one of you have that power within you. You can choose to be kind or you can choose to be cruel. You can choose to be charitable or you can make the choice to allow avarice and greed to rule you. You can choose to be happy or you can choose to walk under a cloud and live in the gloom and darkness.
For the rest of your lives, after you leave your childhoods behind and begin your lives in earnest, there will be those whose choices and the consequences of those choices have left them bitter and distrustful, whose lives are bogged down in doubt and fear and they will blame everyone on earth for their sorry plight except for themselves. These people, these energy vampires, rather than making the decision to lift themselves and those around them up, instead will actively try and bring everybody they see as above them, those they blame for their condition, down to their level, because in their minds it is better for all to be enslaved and angry than for some to be happy and free and the joy experienced by the Free is, to these energy vampires, like the bright daylight, destroying their paper mache facades of superiority and dissolving them around their feet, exposing them to the Light and revealing them for who they are. The last thing they want is for someone to have something they don't have, could never have despite how much money they make or how many cars they own or how big their houses are and that is the contentment that comes with knowing that you have made the choice to be free, that you have CHOSEN peace and charity and compassion, not because you were told to, not because you were frightened into it by the bogeymen of politics or religion, but because you've discovered on your own that choosing happiness MAKES you happy, and that the only way for us humans to truly coexist in harmony is to not just be brave enough to choose happiness for ourselves, but to also be gracious enough to allow others the freedom to make their own choices, whether you agree with them or not, because true freedom is a two way street. You cannot demand freedom for yourself while restricting the freedoms of everyone else. The energy vampires are out there; they will use whatever they can to bring you down. Your weight, your height, your gender, the color of your skin, the language you speak, your faith, your politics, all of these are fair game to them and they don't care which one they use.
They'll seek out and find your weakness, your kryptonite, your sore spot, and they'll poke at it incessantly until they get the response they want, and all because they recognize in your happiness what their lives could have been, what they think they deserve, and they'd rather all of us be slaves than for one of us to rejoice in our freedom. They're biggest weapon against you, their most effective tool in stopping you from achieving what they are too afraid to even attempt, is fear. Fear is the greatest motivator known to man. Fear can make you run faster, jump higher and fight harder than you thought possible. Harnessing that power, that fear, the fear of missing the buzzer beater 30 foot jump shot, the fear of failing that dreaded test that counts as twenty percent of your grade, the fear of walking down the aisle to get married, or speak to a group of freshman, is the key to mastering that fear and using it. Allowing it to motivate in you the courage and resolve to step in and say, "No! That's not gonna happen if I can help it!" Or even better, " Yes! I'll take this chance and I'll make it work!" Never allow an unfounded fear to keep you from taking chances in your life. Always know everything there is to know about every situation you find yourselves in and you'll hardly ever be surprised. But, as the French say, "C'est La vie!" Such is life. There will always be surprises.
In the overall Grand Scheme of Things, whether you believe it's through evolution or from God or space aliens, humankind, homo sapiens, are the dominate species living on this little rock floating peacefully in the remotest corner of a minor galaxy twisting and turning through the magnificent and wondrous vistas of the multiverse. People, men and women and children, despite our fragile natures, are at the top of the food chain on this planet. We aren't the strongest animals on earth. We aren't fast, like the cheetah; we can't breathe water like a shark; we can't soar on thermals miles above the trees like an eagle; we aren't poisonous; so what is it that allowed us weak, slow, earth bound, non venomous humans to rise to the top? What tipped the scales in our favor? It is our ability to reason, to imagine, to think, to recognize that one decision, right or wrong, can mean the difference between a desired outcome and an undesirable one. When a snake feels hungry, it feeds; when it grows too big, it finds a place to shed its skin; when it's confronted by an enemy, it fights or retreats. The snake has no one to tell it when it's hungry or that it's time for dinner; there are no snake gym teachers to tell it to shed its skin to make room for the new one. It relies on its instincts. To our knowledge the snake has no cognitive process sophisticated enough to help it make these decisions; it just does what snakes do. Snake stuff. People have instincts, too, all passed down through genetics and hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, but the difference is, we have the power to decide not be ruled by them, even ignore them.
We can choose not to eat or to only eat vegetables or grains or to share what we have with other people who might not have any food to eat and while we don't shed our skins like a snake, we do choose what clothes to wear and how to style our hair and we wear makeup and jewelry, not from instinct but from a personal choice, based on how we feel and what others around us are wearing. These are all choices, trivial choices in the face of things as they are, but choices none the less and that ability, the ability to gather data, analyze that data, reach conclusions based on that data and then act accordingly is what separates us from the lower forms of life (on this planet, anyway). But along with this ability comes another unique qualifying characteristic of the human condition; responsibility.
When we make a decision, well reasoned or instinctual, we as a species instinctually feel the responsibility to accept the consequences of those decisions. The snake has no responsibility to the mouse to treat it with gentleness as it swallows it whole; it is without a conscience, without a moral compass. It just does what snakes do without worry and without remorse. But we aren't snakes (most of us, anyway); when we watch, horrified, as tragedy after tragedy unfolds before our eyes on the news, when we see and hear people, sometimes even people we know say and do terrible things, regardless of the pain it causes others, when we watch the smaller, weaker humans among us being trampled underfoot, when we see others like us being bullied because they're different, for whatever reason, we, unlike those lower forms of animal, have the capacity for understanding, for compassion, for kindness and that capacity must come with a sense of responsibility, a feeling of duty to those being bullied, to those being persecuted for their beliefs and to those without the wherewithal to defend themselves, because without that feeling of duty, without that unique spark of humanity, we become like the animals, without remorse, without feeling and without hope. But you, all of you here today, don't have to suffer that fate. You can make another choice, right now, this second. You can choose to think, to exercise those young, vibrant brains and make decisions based on truth, not someone else's truth, but THE truth, because you live in an age where everything, every decision that’s ever been made and every consequence of those decisions, for good or evil, is there for you use as a tool, literally at your fingertips.
You see, thousands of years ago, when I was your age, there were these things called libraries and in these libraries were other things called books and I and other ancient people like me used to have to leave our homes and actually go to these places and read those books in order to learn things about our pasts. The books were called encyclopedias. They were really cool. You should Google them. Today, you don't even have to leave your bedrooms to access a hundred times that amount of information on the internet, so when it comes to decision making, you have a magnificent advantage over people of my generation, so you have no excuses if you screw things up the way those who came before you have. Learn from the mistakes and the triumphs of history, but temper that knowledge with humility and grace, because sacrifices have been made on your behalf, sacrifices by your parents, your teachers and by those who have come before you, for as our old friend Sir Isaac Newton said in a letter to a friend, concerning Newton's own remarkable achievements, "If I have seen further, it is from standing on the shoulders of giants.
So, the past is there for you to learn from, the future is there for you to shape and now is the time to choose to give yourselves every advantage, commit yourselves to the betterment of the world around you and make good decisions based on logic, common sense, grace and charity.
And, for goodness' sake, while you have this time, take some of it to just be kids. The majority of your lives will be spent paying bills, working, worrying about your children, growing old and bald and fat, so do not take these years that you have in front of you for granted. Play! Be silly! Have fun! The world has been spinning for billions of years...it will still be spinning for billions of years after we're all gone and our time here, by comparison, is more brief than the briefest of thoughts... please, for my sake, for your sake's, don't waste a minute of it!