Excerpted from a speech delivered by Stephen King at the Vassar College commencement, May 20, 2001.
I have to tell you the scary truth, because that's my job. You know the old proverb, don't you, about the woman who carries the drowning scorpion across the raging stream? Once they're on the other side, it stings her and as she staggers to her knees, dying, she reproaches it for ingratitude. "C'mon lady," it says, "you knew I was a scorpion when you picked me up." And you knew I was the scary guy when you picked me for this job, so deal with it. That human life is brief when placed in time's wider perspective is something we all know. I am asking you to consider it on a more visceral level, that's all.
What will you do? Well, I'll tell you one thing you're not going to do, and that's take it with you. I'm worth I don't exactly know how many millions of dollars--I'm still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I'm doing OK--and a couple of years ago I found out what "you can't take it with you" means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you're lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard.
If you find yourself in the ER with a serious infarct, or if the doctor tells you yeah, that lump you felt in your breast is a tumor, you can't wave your Diners Club at it and make it go away. My life, as it happened, was saved. The man who saved it was a volunteer EMT named Paul Fillebrown. He did the things that needed to be done at the scene, and then he drove me to the nearest hospital at 110 miles an hour. And while Paul Fillebrown may have an American Express Card, I doubt very much if it's a gold one or, God save us, the black one that offers double Frequent Flyer miles and special deals at Club Med.
We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life's simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we're just as broke. Warren Buffett? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. Steve King? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? How long have you got to be in the chips? "I'm aware of the time passin' by, they say in the end it's the blink of an eye." That's how long. Just the blink of an eye.Yet for a short period--let's say 40 years, but the merest blink in the larger course of things--you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the hugest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you will create in your own image. That's your time, your moment. Don't miss it. I think my generation did, although I don't blame us too much; it's over in the blink of an eye and it's easy to miss.