Note: The following essay was originally written as a my first speech, the Icebreaker speech, as part of my membership in Toastmasters. I have edited the speech into a more readable, rather than listenable, essay.
Full names have been redacted where necessary. – CvH
If I were to tell you about myself, it wouldn’t be a very interesting story. I could tell you some basic facts, like where I was born (Tulsa, Oklahoma) and what I like to do (sleeping is high on my list) but frankly it would bore you to tears. I don’t have a great story, with a beginning that puts you on edge of your seat, a captivating middle explaining my struggles to overcome adversity, ending with my eventual triumph and glorious success.
My life has a beginning, of course; the middle, well, it’s not all that interesting; and, while I know it will come, there is no end in sight. When I think of the many interesting people I’ve met over the years, I’m constantly amazed and humbled by their accomplishments. By comparison, I can’t claim any works of art, books, publications, or any fabulous achievements, really. But I do have a few little stories to tell that have changed my perspective on life, and I hope will change yours a little.
My first story: My wife, Carol, grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb. She completed her undergraduate studies at Carleton College in Minnesota, and shortly after college lived with her good friend Corinna in Minneapolis. Corinna grew up in Tulsa. Tulsa, if you’ve never been there, is not exactly a small town. But, it just so happened that Corinna lived next door to Bennett W., a high-school classmate – we weren’t best friends, but not enemies either. Carol and I are amazed by this, albeit indirect, connection between us.
Another story: My father is an artist, a professional landscape painter and teacher. He grew up in occupied Holland during World War II, and moved to Tulsa in the fifties. Over the years he traveled around the world, conducting landscape painting workshops, and one of his favorite places to paint was Boothbay Harbor, Maine. He settled there later in life, and still lives their today. After my mother died, he remarried. He met his wife, Jan, a retired schoolteacher, in Boothbay. When my wife, Carol, and I met her, Jan mentioned that she was originally from Des Moines, Iowa. Carol’s dad, Phil, was from Des Moines as well.
You can probably guess where this is going. As it happened, Jan and Phil went to the same high school in Des Moines, at the same time, in the same class. What’s more, Jan’s best friend in high school was a woman with the unusual nickname of “Teddy”. Teddy lived next door to Phil, and they were good friends growing up. Teddy moved away from Des Moines, lived in New York for many years, and in retirement moved to, of all places, Chapel Hill. Whenever Jan or Phil come through to visit us, there is always a mini-reunion with Teddy.
You’ve all probably heard of the internet game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?” Well, it would not surprise me if, maybe over a glass of wine or two, I could find a connection with practically anyone reading this, connections through friends and relatives that make the world seem a little smaller. We are all possibly no farther apart than six degrees of separation.
For instance, my friend Crystal D. is active in the Eno River Unitarian church. She knows, or at least I think she does, my friend Kristen T., who has been active in Eno’s music program. Kristen was in the Peace Corps, in Thailand, and later lived with another Peace Corps alum I know, Edie K., who is married to a good friend of ours, Richard G.. Had I never met Richard, I never would have met my wife, Carol. But it gets even more interesting: Kristin’s aunt went to Grinnell, as did my father-in-law, Phil. They knew each other in college, and reconnected in retirement in Arizona. Now, of course, while I’ve been lucky enough to meet Crystal through my job, it fascinates me that, whether we were aware of it or not, there were thin social threads connecting us.
I suppose if you believe in fate or destiny, these coincidences aren’t surprising. But, I don’t attribute these coincidences to fate. I think they show something profound about us, namely how closely connected we all are. When I think about this in a bigger context, I wonder if it is possible that I have a connection to everyone in the world. It would probably take a few more glasses of wine and some serious internet research, but I bet those connections could be found – isn’t that Facebook’s business model, after all? Of course, none of us have the time to do that much detective work, but just to know that those connections might exist makes the world a smaller, better place. I also think these connections make our responsibility to our fellow humans even greater. We are all truly related.
I think about these connections relative to my work. I may never be part of my companies leadership team, and I probably won’t have the opportunity to travel and directly participate in the work that we do. But, I know that my little part here does somehow help make a difference; that my connection to my far-flung coworkers will make a difference to the many people around the world that we affect through our work. The tangible and intangible connections we have to our fellow human beings transcend ideas of nationality, ethnicity, or religious identity. They are real evidence that we are a human family.
So, in the end my story may not be all that interesting, but I think our story, our shared story, is truly fascinating. And if I’ve helped you see just how interesting our story can be, maybe there is something to my story after all.