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1 The Last Lecture rvin Cemil Schick stanbul ehir University, 28 February 2013

Thank you, Lejla, for explaining what The Last Lecture is all about. I got so many inquiries over the last few days asking what was going on, was I leaving ehir, all sorts of questions like that... So no, I am not leaving, this is only a hypothetical exercice. If this were to be my last lecture, what would I wish to say? I will speak for about half an hour, and then take your questions, if you have any. When Felister asked me to give this lecture a few months ago, I accepted without realizing how difficult a task it would be. And I have been thinking about it on and off ever since. If this were to be my last lecture, what would I wish my parting words to be? How would I wish to be remembered? What is interesting is that at my age, the idea that this lecture, or any lecture for that matter, might be my last is not quite as theoretical as it might be for one of you. When one is young, one feels immortal. Even for those of you who are intellectually aware that death could strike at any time, deep inside, you are confident that it will not. Death is something that just happens to others, never to oneself. As one ages, this perception changes. When I turned fifty some years ago, I felt my life was over. I was extremely depressed, and this was made worse by the fact that my health suddenly declined. My cholesterol had always been exemplary, for instance. Now all of a sudden it was high. Not terribly high, but high enough. My blood pressure had always been wonderful. Now all of a sudden that went up as well. All kinds of little things were going wrong, all at once. It was as if my body was telling me that my time was up. Add to that some more serious medical problems that I had developed a few years earlier, and I began to feel not only that I was mortal, but in fact that my death was imminent. And you know what? I have found that this is not such a bad thing after all. You know how it is when you exercise, or you run, or you play football, and suddenly you feel all your muscles... Everything aches, and you become aware of parts of your body that you never knew you had. Well, in a months time, I will be fifty eight. Fifty eight is almost sixty. Wow! When did this happen? I have always thought of sixty as old, and I am nearly there. This is quite shocking, actually. They say that life is what happens while you are making other plans. Apparently so, because I have no idea where all that time went. On the other hand, having reached this point makes me extremely aware of everything. I no longer just sail through life unaware. Now I live every day in full consciousness that it may be my last, and that makes me aware of the beauty that surrounds me. Well, I wont lie to you, it also makes me aware of the ugliness. But mostly the beauty. When one is a small child, one has a sense of wonderment. Everything is new, everything is amazing. As one grows up, one loses that sense of wonderment. One becomes blas, one takes everything for granted. And that is such a tremendous loss. I feel that as I have gotten older, I have regained my sense of wonderment. I look at my cat Duhan and think, my God, what an amazing creature. What beautiful

2 eyes he has. What soft fur. How gracefully he jumps up onto the table. What extreme beauty in such a small package! And the fact is that I didnt use to feel this way. I used to think that a cat is a cat. A flower is a flower. The sea is the sea. But no more. And so this is my first piece of advice to you: Do not lose your sense of wonderment. And if you do, or if you already have, try to regain it. Dont wait until you are almost sixty. Start now. Look at what is around you as if this is the first time you are seeing it all. Appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. Now this does not mean that aging is all great. First of all, there is the issue of health. I get out of breath easily, my memory is not what it used to be, I have to take four pills every morning. And you know the worst part? The worst part is that ones heart never ages, and so there is a growing distance between the heart and the body. I am as romantic today as I was as a teenager. Sometimes I encounter an appealing young woman in the street, and I see her just as I would have when I was only twenty. And she looks at me and she thinks oh, this guy looks just like my grandfather. This is not easy, let me tell you. On the other hand, I have reached a point where I feel more centered. Where I know who I am, and where my place is in this world. The fact is that it took me a very long time to reach this point, and I am grateful to God for granting me enough years to get here. So what does all this mean in terms of how I live my life? For one thing, I am no longer willing to postpone things. You know what they say, dont leave for tomorrow what you can do today. Well, look, there may not be a tomorrow. So you have to live life accordingly. There is an old clich: plan as if you will live for ever, work as if you will die tomorrow. After a certain age, this is no longer a theoretical issue. I actually may die tomorrow, and so I work accordingly. And I think I waited far too long to reach this point. So here is my second piece of advice: Do not postpone. Do what feels right, and do it now. And that means, perhaps, that if you feel you are in the wrong academic department, do not hesitate to change it. Disliking what one does on a daily basis is a recipe for unhappiness. Do not condemn yourself to unhappiness because of a past mistake, whether yours or your parents. Take whatever steps are necessary to achieve a happy and fulfilling life. But please, do not misunderstand me as advocating selfishness and crass individualism. Another thing I have discovered over time is the enormous joy of doing good. Not just to people, but to all of Creation. Be good to cats. Be good to dogs. Be good to birds. Give them water in the Summer. Give them food. Protect them from the elements. Protect them from cruelty. Yes, this is a good deed that will earn you Gods approval, but do it also for them, and do it for yourself. There is nothing wrong with doing good because it feels good to do good. I have an interesting story for you. Some years ago I became acquainted with a Polish professor teaching in the United States. I bumped into her through the Internet and actually we have still not met in person. She was writing a book about the years that the great American novelist and playright James Baldwin spent in Istanbul. He was here for a decade, more or less, during which he closely collaborated with people active in the Turkish theater like Yldz Kenter and Engin Cezzar.

As it happens, I found some errors in her work and told her about them. And so she started asking me various questions, and I helped her in the course of finishing her book. Now please dont get me wrong, the book is completely hers, I just helped out with some small details here and there. But of course it took quite a bit of my time. So at one point, she asked me why I was spending so much of my time helping her. After all, we barely knew each other, she wasnt paying me or anything, so why did I bother? Without thinking much about it, I told her that the aesthetics of the world I live in is very important to me. And for me, a book with errors in it is an ugly thing. So, I said, I was helping her not for her sake personally, but in order to make the world a slightly more beautiful place. So later on, when she was describing my help, she said that I had been trying to make the world more beautiful one correction at a time. I really loved that description. Yes, some of the corrections I mde were tiny, perhaps insignificant. And some were more important. But it isnt how big the error is. If I know there is an error, no matter how big or small, that takes away from the beauty of the world. And so I want to make that error go away. I want to make the world a more beautiful place. So here is a third piece of advice. Do not underestimate your potential to make the world more beautiful. Each one of us can actively participate in making the world a more beautiful place. You dont need to be wealthy, or to have a Ph.D., or to be a world class artist or musician or author. It is in the power of each and every one of you to contribute to making the world a more beautiful place. So do it, for your own sake, and for that of all the people with whom you share the planet. And speaking of the people with whom you share the planet... Jean Paul Sartre famously said, in his play No Exit, that Hell is the others. In other words, that each one of us has his or her own personal hell, which is made of the people around us. Well, it is certainly true that people have the power to make life hell for us, and indeed, it is remarkable how unnecessarily cruel some people can be, how much pain they can inflict on others for little or no reason. But ultimately, with every person you encounter, you should think to yourself: could it be that this person and I were meant to be close to each other? Could it be that we can be best friends, even soulmates? I can be pretty misanthropic, to be perfectly honest with you. I dont really think of myself as a people person. I used to agree with Lucy in the cartoon strip Peanuts, who said I have nothing against humanity, its people I hate. And yet people constantly surprise me with their depth, with their inner beauty. So my fourth piece of advice would be that each of you should have a beauty radar and it should always be turned on. When you meet people, do not dismiss them for being other. They may be of a different gender, class, race, religion, sexuality, age, nationality, politics, ... But in the final analysis, your shared humanity is more important and more powerful than any such difference. So be sure always to ask yourself: Could it be that this person and I were meant to be close to each other? Remember to deal with people on the basis of who they are, and not what they are. People are not simple. No one can be reduced to one or two or even five hundred adjectives. Each person is much more than the sum of his or her parts. To reduce a person to a few adjectives is foolish. It robs us of the possibility of experiencing the full wealth of that person. That is not only unfair to the person in question, it is unfair to ourselves. It is a loss. I just said I can be misanthropic, and that is the truth. But it is also true that I have changed over my lifetime. I used to be much worse. So sometimes, when I mention to a recent acquaintance that at some occasion in the past I was furious and raised my voice, that I yelled and screamed, he or she says that it

4 is difficult to imagine me doing that. But I am guilty of having done a lot of it in the past. I used to be judgemental. There were two ways of doing things, I used to think, my way and the wrong way. Now I know that this resulted in my being unfair to some people, in that I did not try to understand them as hard as I should have. As a result, I did not get to know them as well as I might have, and thus I robbed myself of the potential opportunity of getting close to someones inner beauty. So, my fifth piece of advice is: Do not be too judgemental. Ultimately, everyone around you is trying to do just what you are doing: they are trying to survive as best they can. Life is not easy, there are challenges, there are pressures of all kinds, and we each deal with those pressures in different ways. And sometimes we make mistakes. But we must cut each other some slack. We must give each other a second chance. And perhaps a third, and even a fourth. All this will sound very pious, very holier than thou. Am I able to follow my own advice? Eh, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I am not telling you that I have achieved all these things. Just that I have come to realize how important they are. We need to learn to forgive others for their trespasses, and to do that, we need to learn to forgive ourselves for our own trespasses. And this is often much harder. We are so harsh on ourselves, so uncompromising. Learn to show yourselves some understanding, some compassion. Accept yourselves for who you are. This is actually extremely hard, because many of us measure ourselves against impossibly high standards. But we must learn to forgive ourselves. This is very important. What else have I learned? For one thing, I have learned the importance of being many sided. It is, of course, true that in order to succeed professionally in todays world, one needs to be specialized. It is no accident that specialists make much more money than generalists. Society values expertise. But what about us? What do we value? Personally I value breadth of horizon. There is so much to know, and so little time. And everything you learn connects you to something else: to a part of nature, to another person, to human history. People ask, why bother to study mathematics, or history, or geography? Why bother to study English or Turkish or French? Why bother to learn about art or music? The answer is: because all these put you in touch with the collective heritage of humanity. You get to know people who lived elsewhere, at different times. You get to understand what made them tick, what they thought, what were their hopes and aspirations... You get to feel with their hearts. So acquiring knowledge is not just about learning tricks of the trade that you can apply in your professional lives. It is about establishing connections with the history of humanity, with your fellow humans. And so my sixth piece of advice is this: when you have a chance to learn something new, dont ask the question to what use can I put this? You may not know whether or not you will be able to put this knowledge to profitable use in your career, and if so, how. But you can be sure that every morsel that you learn will make you richer. If not financially, then spiritually. There is so much to learn, and we cant possibly learn all of it. But if we keep our eyes open, we can still learn quite a bit. And this is a clich, but there is no age to learning. This is literally true. One never ceases to learn, provided that one is willing. Here is an example: it is said that when the calligrapher Ahmed Kmil Akdik, the last person to hold the title Reisl Hatttn or Chief Calligrapher, lay on his death bed, he said: I have only one regret; that I am dying before having had a chance to really learn calligraphy. We was one of the most prominent calligraphers of his time, and yet this is what he said as he lay dying. It is true. One never stops learning, provided that one is willing to learn.

And this suggests a continuous quest for knowledge, doesnt it? But where will this quest take us? Is this just a conceit, accumulating facts for the sake of accumulating facts? One cant help remembering the great Anglo American poet T.S. Eliots wonderful poem Four Quartets, which ends as follows: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. Our quest will not necessarily take us somewhere new, but it will allow us to know our world in a new way. The purpose of the quest is not getting somewhere; the purpose of the quest is self transformation. It is said that when the Prophet Muhammad returned from battle, he once said The small jihad is over; now the greatest jihad begins. What he meant by the greatest jihad was the fight against the self, against ones base desires and instincts. Against ones own imperfections. Yes, when we make mistakes, we must forgive ourselves, as I said before, but this only makes sense if we are willing to change so that we do not make the same mistake again. In this sense, life is a quest for self improvement, a quest which, for most of us, never ends except at death. Some people are more successful at it than others, of course. There is a couplet attributed to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi: The summary of my life is these three words, he says, I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned. Most people do not reach that happy stage. Change is a law of nature. Everything changes. You cannot step twice into the same river said Heraclitos, for other waters are constantly flowing on to you. Trying to stop change is a conceit that is always doomed to fail. The point is not to stay the same, but to change wisely. And so my seventh piece of advice is always to be cautious about terms like progressive and conservative, about claims of historical necessity, of being revolutionary or reactionary. I am not saying that these terms are not meaningful, just suggesting that their meaning and applicability must always be questioned and debated. Which means that blind faith and adherence to this political party or that, to this political leader or that, is something to be avoided at all costs. We must defend principles, values, ideals, not individual actors. And we must always be willing to do so no matter the cost. It is easy to be ethical when one has nothing to lose. It is much harder when there is a lot at stake. So what principles or values are worth defending? Freedom is one, but defined in a very broad manner. Freedom of expression is very important, for example, as is freedom of access to information. But freedom from hunger, from poverty, from violence are just as important. Human rights include freedom from torture, from arbitrary detention, from discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, religion, gender, and sexuality, but also the right to decent health care, to proper nutrition, to adequate housing, to education. We must defend those less fortunate than us. This is our duty as human beings. The United States Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, speaks of unalienable rights and gives as examples life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But none of us can enjoy these rights when others are deprived of them. A society that oppresses one group of people oppresses everyone. The only true guarantee of your freedom, of your right to live and your bodily integrity, of your happiness, is that everyone enjoys the same rights. Why? you may ask. Because principles are important, for one thing, and because one cannot enjoy a wonderful meal if one is surrounded by starving people. But also because fortunes change: as Isaac

6 Newton supposedly said, what goes up must come down, and those who are in power now will eventually be out of power just as those who were in power before are out of power now. And also because oppression has costs. Oppressing women, for example, means locking men into certain gender roles with which they may not always be happy. Oppressing minorities means fighting to maintain inequality and dying in the process. No one is free when others are oppressed. This is not just a theoretical statement, it is often literally true. So what can we do? What must we do? We must get involved. We must organize. Often people say I am not a joiner. I dont like organizations. Well, I can sympathize with that, but we have much more power as a group than as individuals. So if we want to change the world, and if you have looked around lately, you know that it badly needs changing, then we must organize. There are many causes that deserve out support. We must protect the environment. We must come to terms with the fact that animals have rights and deserve a decent life. We must speak up against the oppression of women. We must seek peace, we must end this senseless war in the East that has cost tens of thousands of lives. We must end discrimination against minorities, especially against gypsies whose situation remains critical in our country. We must firmly oppose the continuing restrictions on the freedom of speech and association, and on free access to information, and strongly support legal reforms which are long overdue and continue to tarnish our countrys human rights record. At the same time, we must support oppressed people elsewhere, in Palestine, in China, in Sri Lanka, in Syria... Without focusing only on the people we like. It is not only Muslims who face oppression across the world, but millions of others as well. We cannot afford to ignore their plight. And we must learn not to hate. We can hate oppression, we can hate injustice, but we must not hate entire groups of people. There is so much hatred in this country, hatred of Jews, of Armenians, of Alevis, of Kurds, of gays... Hatred is a poison, and it inflicts the most damage not on those who are hated but on those who hate. This was the message that Hrant Dink tried so hard to convey, the message that was deliberately misunderstood by the court that sentenced him to prison, supposedly for insulting Turkishness. People have been living and dying for hundreds of thousands of years, and it is very difficult to say anything on the subject that has not been said before. Inevitably one ends up resorting to clichs, and I am sure I have done so many times throughout this talk. But no matter, what I have been saying is heartfelt. We are born, live altogether too short lives, and die, and our lives would be utterly meaningless if we did not try to make a contribution to the world that has hosted us during that time. So my final word of advice is this. Live to make the world a better place, and do your very best to leave it just a little more beautiful than you found it. Ultimately, this is all that any of us can hope for. Thanks for listening.

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