In The End, Stories Are All That We Have

Today I had the pleasure of addressing the graduates at Medix College in London, Ontario. It was a truly powerful experience to be part of this particular graduation ceremony. Thank you to Gerry Slattery at Medix for the opportunity and to the graduates, friends and family who permitted me to take up 15 minutes of their special day. The following is the speech that I delivered. 

Writing a speech like this has a tendency to make you question everything.

It starts off with a simple question:

What am I going to say?

The second you ask it you find yourself spiralling downwards through a myriad of question without satisfactory answers. What do people want to hear? What wisdom do I have to share? Will anyone care about what I have say? You watch people like David Foster Wallace, Barack Obama and Robin Williams give graduation speeches because you think that you’ll be inspired, but in the end you just end up standing in the shower, lying in bed or staring out the window and thinking, what am I going to say?

Then, faintly, as if brought to you in a dream you start to realize that you’re talking in third person (which is kind of weird), that there’s an audience in front of you and that you’re just going to have to make something up.

Now, I wouldn’t be so reckless as to come today without something written down–I thought about it though–but the point I’m trying to make is that everything we do, everyday of our lives is in some ways, made up.

Next time you walk into a room, I challenge you to look at things a little differently. Instead of trying to figure out names or job titles try to see the stories behind the people in front of you. You might think that I’m losing it, but when I look out at all of you I don’t just see Medix graduates, I see a room of storytellers, script writers, improvisers and artists.

In my mind, all of us, no matter how boring you think that you are, are by nature more creative than we think. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that we’re all storytellers. Everyday we make sense of our lives by telling stories about what we see, what we think and what we feel.

Without stories we wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything. We wouldn’t be able to talk about our fears, our failures or our successes. We wouldn’t be able to feel love, or hate or pain or alone and we’d probably find that without stories we couldn’t really be alive.

So, no matter what I say today, whether I talk about life, love or dragons I can guarantee that it is going to be a story. That’s not to say that I’m going to make things up to mislead you or that I’m going to lie, but I want you to know that what I say isn’t necessarily going to be ‘true’ or ‘factual’ because I’d argue that nothing is really ‘true’ and nothing is really a ‘fact’. All I have are my stories, my perceptions and my best guesses about why I have certain ideas; so in a sense, everything that I’m going to say is made up.

So, that leads me to story number one. I was at home, making dinner and the radio was on.

I don’t know if there are any other CBC Radio fans out there, but if there are, I think you know what I mean when I say that the hosts feel like they are members of my family. When we were little, my parents used to make my sister and I listen to CBC instead of music at dinner. So quite literally we used to eat dinner with our friends at CBC. Okay, maybe not literally, but they were certainly a part of our conversation. My sister and I hated it, but as soon as we got older we started listening too. Figure that out.

Anyway, I listen to this show called ‘Q’ with Jian Ghomesi, it’s an arts, culture and politics show where people come to, you guessed it, tell stories, about current affairs, their lives and cultural trends. As I was making dinner I started listening to an interview with a Canadian filmmaker named Atom Egoyan. Somewhere in between opening and closing the oven I heard Egoyan say something that struck me as important for today. He said, and I’m slightly paraphrasing, that in his movies, “he tries to show characters from the point of view that they see themselves and that he’s always trying to find a way to represent his characters the way that they see themselves.”

Think about the implications of that for a minute. On the surface that sounds like pretty simple advice. We’ve all heard someone say, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” before. But take Egoyan’s idea to the extreme and you realize that he’s saying that he sees value in trying to understand the people that upset, disturb and distress us the most. That can be hard, in some cases it might seem impossible. Egoyan admits that this view might be “very upsetting and some might find it incredibly audacious or just outright offensive.” But I think that what he says is worth committing to and being brave about. If we can find the strength to imagine how the most difficult people see themselves and their lives, we can maybe, just maybe, start to come up with ways to show empathy in the most horrific of situations.

You’re all going to go out into the work world and have to put up with difficult people in your professions and in your personal lives. If you can find the strength to understand how people see themselves, even when they’ve treated you poorly, I think that you can start to heal some of the wounds that keep our society divided.

Talking about this reminds me of a moment, from about four years ago, that reminded me to try to see through the eyes of another. It was the end of my year as the President of the Students’ Council at Huron College. I was sitting in my office getting ready to move my last box of stuff out to my car when my door opened and in came Sue, an international student from mainland China. Sue had helped me to get elected because we agreed that Huron needed to do more to support international students on campus. Sue and I had worked together throughout the year and I thought that we’d made some good progress. However, Sue walked into my office, sat down and said, “Adam, you’ve failed international students.” In that moment I remember fighting a pretty intense internal battle. Like most would, I started to get defensive and begun to compile a list off all of the ways that I had tried to help international students. But suddenly I realized that I was being an idiot. Sue was here in my office because of how she felt; how could I possibly argue with that?

From that moment on I’ve been hyper-aware of the fact that you can never argue with how someone feels. You can discuss, empathize and accept how someone feels, but you really can’t argue. It’s such a simple thought, but it’s important. Think about it, if I tell you that I’m sad, what are you going to do, tell me that I’m lying? It won’t work and you can waste a lot of time trying to convince someone that they’re happy when they’re sad or that they’re actually calm when they’re raging mad. Deep down we all know this to be true, but for some reason we try really hard to deny it. So, when you’re in the work world or just at home with your family and friends, ask yourself whether you’re debating a feeling or an issue. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but if you can figure it out you might save yourself a lot of frustration!

A few more thoughts.

Never forget the value of the small. We live in a world defined by the big: big box stores, big cars and big cities. But don’t forget that the smallest of things are often the most important. This idea comes from a guy named Torquil Campbell; he’s a musician with a band called Stars and I heard him speak not too long ago. He said that we live in a world where we seem to think, “if you’re big you’re too big to fail, if you’re small you’re small anyway so no one will notice when you’re gone.” In some ways I think that he’s right; we often celebrate big and generally seem to undervalue things that never get there. He goes on to say that it is “the tiny exchanges that create colour in our lives” and that if we stop paying attention to these moments we’ll start to feel a sense of loss without any sense of why. Take a moment to appreciate the small things in your life. Today is a big moment for many of you, but take a moment to notice the little things. Who is here with you? Who helped you to get where you are? What’s the weather like? What did you do this morning? I guarantee you that at least one of these ‘small’ things will start to seem like a pretty ‘big’ thing. In fact, you’ll probably remember that small thing a lot more than you’ll remember anything that I have to say.

So as Torquil would say, “take care of the small in your life, in their absence, small things become huge, it isn’t until they aren’t there anymore that we notice.”

That leads me to my last story for the day. At the beginning of September I was in Prince Edward Island for a conference to celebrate 150 years since the first meetings to discuss Canadian Confederation. I was with 100 delegates from across Canada discussing what Canada’s next 50 years should look like. The conference was a celebration of Canada, but it also recognized the gaps in the story that we tell ourselves about our country. We like to tell ourselves that we live in a polite, kind, welcoming and accepting society and that our country was built collaboratively, without significant prejudice or bloodshed. But try telling that to a First Nations person who has lost their traditional land or a Metis decendent who was called an animal by our first Prime Minister. The Canadian narrative is a great narrative, but it misses a lot of things. Throughout our history we have been just as guilty of excluding people from decisions about our country: Indigenous and Metis peoples, women, young people, new Canadians to name a few groups. I met people at the conference whose Canadian story was entirely different than the story that we teach in history class. Some had never felt proud to be Canadian before.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be proud of the country that we live in, but it is to say that we should always realize that there is more than one story. There are people in Canada who have stories outside of the book that is read in the media and we have to do a better job of listening to them. For me, the experience of listening, to people my own age, talk about how Canada has let them down, reminded me that we can never allow ourselves to be defined by a single story. We can’t assume that we ever know the whole story and need to give others the opportunity to feel differently than we do.

As you move into the work world, remember that it’s okay to tell your story if it’s different than everyone elses and don’t be afraid to question people who believe that there is just one story. The diversity of Canada’s story is one of those small things that Torquil was talking about. If we don’t protect the ability to be different, to disagree, to share experiences and to adopt more than one story we will lose more than just a small thing. The loss will be large and noticeable, so let’s protect it.

The last thing that I want to talk about is the Medix story.

I think that the most impressive thing about the Medix story is the story that each of you is telling the world by making it to today. Getting to this day says something about the choices that you have made in your life, but what is going to say even more is the work that you are going to do after today. My hope is that each of you will carry the positive message from the Medix community out into London or wherever you end up next. Because, the impact that you make, the people that you help and the work that you do is the Medix story.

I’ve known about Medix for a little while now, but I didn’t make my first visit until this summer. As I was waiting in the lobby I noticed a few things. People treat each other with respect. People smile, say hello and generally notice that you exist. There are words on the walls that subtly encourage you to keep going and not to give up. The staff have signed a set values that you can see right above the front desk. And, the whole place feels entirely human. It feels like a place where you can succeed.

That’s not because of the nice colours on the walls, or the windows into the classrooms (although the colours are nice and the windows are great) it’s because of the community created by people like you the students, and you the staff. In a world where we sometimes forget the little things, I think that it’s worth taking a moment to recognize just how special it is to find a place that lets you just be alive. As you move out of Medix and onto the next leg of your journey, I challenge you to carry the story of the College community with you.

So, as I finish up my book of stories, narratives and ideas today, I want to remind each of you to keep making up the story of your own life. There is no perfect script to each and everyday, if there was, it wouldn’t be life and it wouldn’t be any fun. Try to understand people, accept the way that people feel, protect the small and make room for more than one story.

And next time you’re standing in the shower, lying in bed, or staring out the window and thinking way too hard, remember, a story will move you forward.

In the end, stories are all that we have and I think, all that we really need.

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