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Tom Spanbauer is a Pultizer Prize-nominated author and founder of the Dangerous Writing Workshops. He delivered the following commencement address to the graduating class of 12, from Wieden Kennedy’s experiment disguised as an advertising school.

As I understand it, this has been a rough year for you guys, and yet the theme which you have chosen for your graduation is gratitude. I’d like to commend you on your choice. For a human being to come to the place of gratitude after a period of contention, after all the wraggling and squabbling and personal suffering, to be able to be thankful for the strife—without which, we would never have gained our particular insights. This awareness to be grateful, I think, is the thing about us that makes us most human.

Human.

Now in the world, in these days of our lives, we need this thing that makes us most human more than ever. The gesture toward gratitude. Instead of dwelling on the pain and the divisiveness, we come to see how the pain and divisiveness have made us aware. Awareness. To be most human, I think, is, despite the suffering, to reach for awareness.

There are a lot of preachers in their pulpits going on about forgiveness right now and I know I run the risk of sounding like one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I myself am all for kvetching and bitching and not putting up with anybody’s shit. I’m for complaining and whining and whatever you have to do to get yourself heard.

Please don’t choose gratitude because it’s the Christian thing to do. Please don’t choose gratitude because it’s good karma. Please don’t choose gratitude because it’s politically correct. In fact, for me, I held out on gratitude for such a long time. Finally, gratitude found me.

I was raised a good Catholic boy, to mind my tongue and be seen and not heard. Believe me, I had to learn how to bitch. I had to learn to draw a line around myself and say, “This is where my line is and don’t push it.” My training ground was New York City. I had to learn the New York Drop Dead Fuck You. It really felt so good to be a person with boundaries. To be a person who clearly stated those boundaries. People started to stop and take notice of me. And I loved it.

Then came December 1, 1996, when I went to OHSU (Oregon Health and Sciences University) with a bad case of the flu and found out it wasn’t the flu at all it was pneumocystis and I had AIDS.

What followed were years and years of profound depression and rage that I’d lost my youth and health in one fell swoop. I cursed God from the deepest part of me. Other friends with AIDS who said, “Oh my disease has taught me so much,” I wanted to slap them silly.

Now ten years later, by writing about AIDS in my book Shy Hunters, with therapy, with my new book, Now Is The Hour, and with the love of a young man also with AIDS who is now my partner, I have come to say, “My disease has taught me so much.”

During the early years of segregation, I marched so that black people could have the same rights as white people. During the years of feminism, I marched so that women could have equal rights with men. After Stonewall, I came out and marched so that queer men and lesbians could have equal rights with straight people.

But each time I marched, for integration, for equal rights, for queer rights, in every one of those causes, the truth is, my ass wasn’t on the line. At any point, if things got too hard, too violent, too scary, I could have disappeared into my white male entitlement. Then came AIDS. There was no running away from it. Oh my fragile life. My mortality.

What I have come to learn is: I do not have a special relationship with God which keeps me safe from death. What I have come to learn is: I’m not God’s bitch and He’s not taking his shit out on me. What I have come to learn is: My suffering isn’t a piece of bad luck that only I have and everybody else doesn’t. My time in Africa in the Peace Corps should have taught me that. But like everything else in my life, when my two years of helping humanity was over, I went back to America to pursue my happiness.

What I have come to learn is: My suffering is not just mine. Suffering doesn’t exclude me from the rest of life. In fact, in my suffering I find that I am everyone who suffers. My suffering includes me in the greater humanity. There is a Zen saying that when you meet someone, look them closely in the eyes and be kind, because within those eyes there is a great battle waging. We are all set down here on earth bewildered, without a clue, trying to figure out how this all works. There are only a few of us who have all the answers and they are lying.

September 9, 2005. I woke up that morning, got out of bed, and had trouble walking to the bathroom. I couldn’t move my left arm. I thought I’d slept on it wrong. When I got to the bathroom, I turned on the light. In the mirror, my face looked strange, I couldn’t wink my left eye and the left side of my face was dead. I tried to reach up with my left hand and touch my face, but I couldn’t get my arm and my hand up that high.

Twelve hours later, in the emergency room, once again at OHSU, I got all the feeling back in my left arm and hand, my left leg. My face could smile on both sides. I could wink my left eye.

Now every morning, when I wake up, the first thing I do is walk into the bathroom and turn on the light. It’s a very simple act. Raising my left hand to my forehead, letting my hand touch the left side of my face. I kiss my hand, then place the kiss onto my face.

Thankful isn’t the word really for my left-handed salute, for the simple grace of my free moving left arm, my beautiful opening and closing left hand, the movement so quick and involuntary the smile that spreads across my face. I am so grateful for my stroke. It has given me the opportunity to love my left arm and hand, the left side of my face, my left eye, my left eye brow, things I’d always taken for granted.

When I first met with you guys, almost a year ago now, I asked each one of you what made you so special, who are you to be in Wieden Kennedy 12? There were lots of tears that day. And now today, this evening, it’s another good time for tears.

You are at a crossroad. A big change. And like with any change, so much is lost, so much is gained. So many opportunities for regret. For hope.

Graduates of Wieden Kennedy 12: Many of you are going out into the highly competitive world of advertising. I’m not sure if you are aware of your tremendous responsibility. The advertising world is the world of ultimate power. Your job has more potential for influence than any other job in the world. Even politicians will bow and scrape to you.

Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher famous for his theory about simulation and simulacrum, has claimed that media images have become more convincing than reality. A producer of the Sopranos, in an interview in the New York Times, said that the nature of television is to make us feel good so we’ll buy stuff. In her interview with Ronald Reagan, it was Barbara Walters herself claiming that Ronald Reagan was the most popular president since Kennedy, that made him the most popular president since Kennedy. Karl Rove convinced the American people that John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, was anti-American.

You will be the people who will tell us who we are.

Please be loving with your new power.

If ever there was a time in history that we needed the Philosopher King, we need her now. Can you step up and take the challenge? Because you, as advertisers in America, aren’t the ones trying to get the Philosopher King elected. In fact, you are the Philosopher King.

You will be creating our reality.

I’m actually terrified for you.

Historically such great power in the hands of so few has always meant tragedy.

There’s an old disco tune that is a favorite of mine, that goes:

Thank you for the joys you brought me
Thank you for the things you taught me
Thank you for holding me close
When I needed you the most.

So in the same spirit of gratitude, and in the spirit of the invitation you sent out to us to join you this evening, I would like to give thanks to the graduates of Wieden Kennedy 12.

Thank you for not talking down to me.

Thank you for believing I am smart.

Thank you for tearing down the boundaries between us and them.

Thank you for not making me more afraid.

Thank you for working so hard for the health and prosperity of our mother, the earth.

Thank you for sponsoring education.

Thank you for working hard for health insurance for every American citizen.

Thank you for keeping our elections and our voting machines safe.

Thank you for not being Adwhores.

Thank you for touching my heart because you’ve opened up your own.

Thank you for not telling me I’m too fat.

Thank you for telling me I’m not too old.

Thank you for not exploiting my suffering.

Thank you for choosing a path with heart.

Thank you for making art.

Thank you for going out and doing something completely different.

Adbusters.

COLORS magazine.

Thank you for standing up for what you believe in no matter what.

Thank you for making a difference.

Thank you for making me grateful I am human.

Thank you for encouraging me to be aware.

Thank you for being careful of my reality.

And my verisimilitude.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. ca

Editor’s note: The advertising column was edited by Ernie Schenck, author of The Houdini Solution: Put Creativity And Innovation To Work By Thinking Inside The Box, now available everywhere.

Tom Spanbauer was born in Pocatello, Idaho, and attended Idaho State University, where he received a BA in English with a minor in German. In 1969, Spanbauer was accepted into the United States Peace Corps and spent two years in Kenya, East Africa. In 1983, he moved to New York City where he attended Columbia University, and received his MFA in Fiction in 1986. He has written a number of short stories and essays, and four novels. Spanbauer is proud to be a citizen of Portland, Oregon. He teaches a class called Dangerous Writing; Thirteen of his students have published novels. He wrote the Advertising column.
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