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It bothers me that I spent so much time thinking about whether or not to write this message of thanks to Paul Findley, the former United States Representative from Illinois, who died last week. However, it does seem appropriate, considering what Mr.Findley taught me about the dangers of using words that others may disagree with. The point of my message is not political. But one of the things Mr. Findley taught me was that the reason behind our words is meaningless if those words might, in any way, appear to speak against power.
My earliest memories of Paul Findley were of following my mother around as she campaigned for him in the 1960s. I helped stick signs in the ground, staple posters to telephone poles, and later play with my little rock band at campaign events. To be honest, I had no idea of Mr. Findley’s views or policies but was doing what a kid did when they were given the chance to do something that felt important. Understanding was secondary in those situations.
My first lesson from Mr. Findley was when I was 17 years old, once again holding a Findley poster at a carnival in Jacksonville. At one point, Paul walked over to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for being there. I’m not sure why, it wasn’t planned, but that’s when I decided to ask him about Vietnam.
I was about to graduate high school, and like many others was trying to decide whether to try for college or enlist in the service. I had no idea of his views on the subject, but he seemed like someone who might have some, so I asked his opinion.
The exact words of his answer are lost in the fog of 50 years, but I do recall feeling that something had just changed inside me. I remember he didn’t just say, “Go to college” or “Go into the service”. Instead, he looked me in the eyes and talked about how important it was for me to think about how I could make changes in the world. I couldn’t remember anyone talking to me like that. And I certainly couldn’t remember anyone ever talking to me about how I might change the world. But that was just lesson one.
Many years later I had the opportunity to travel and spent several months in the Middle East, living in Israel and the West Bank. The Intifada was alive, and I spent time living with families on both sides of the conflict. My last night there, I stood around a piano singing Christmas Carols with a group of Palestinian Christians. My Arabic was as weak as their English, and the carols were the one thing we could share together. I returned home with a different understanding of what “Palestinian” meant. The “conflict” was not as simple as things like political titles and ethnicity. There were other powers involved, each with their own agendas.
I had no intention of becoming “political”, but as I returned to hearing the simplistic explanations, I began to think about Mr. Findley’s comment at the carnival and wondered if my experience might be something I could use to, in my small way, help change the world. I called Mr. Findley. He took my call from his home in Jacksonville since he was no longer in office after losing his last election. I told him about the Christmas Carols. Then, I reminded him of that short conversation years ago at the carnival and told him how much it had meant to me. He listened quietly. He then warned me.
He explained that I did indeed have a message that might have the ability to bring changes to the way some people thought about what was happening in the Middle East. He also explained that my message might also be something very dangerous. I asked him to explain and he quietly suggested that I take more time to think about my experiences, and what is important in my life, before I say or do anything more. Again, the exact words are long-lost, but he ended by quietly saying something like, “Trust me, John, I am sitting here at home because I spoke words some people did not want to hear. Speech is not always free.”
This message is not about the Intifada, or about Israel or Palestine. And as I come near the end, I realize it is not even just about thanking Mr. Paul Findley for his lessons.
This message is for me to read.
That carnival conversation with Paul Findley was in 1969. It was the summer we landed on the moon. It was the summer of Woodstock and the summer of Charles Manson. It was the summer John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in bed and sang about giving peace a chance and it was the summer of “Vietnamization”. It was the year Richard Nixon became president and Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC. 1969 was a year of people changing the world, some for the better and some for the worse. It was a year of seeing people changing the world. It was the year I began wondering what changes I might be able to make.
Today I am older. I still have experiences, and beliefs, and the ability to speak words of change to a world that most of us probably agree is in need of changes. But. But. The danger of words that Paul Findley spoke to me about years ago is far stronger today. While we still speak of the freedom of speech, the people with power have far more power than in 1969 and have no fear of using it because it will simply strengthen their hold on those who agree with them.
I write this message wondering if I am willing to use my words? Am I willing to risk those dangers? Am I willing to have people refuse to buy or read my books because I used words someone did not like? Am I willing to alienate friends or family members? Am I willing to risk…it all?
And I am wondering if I am the only one wondering?