Ambassador Matthew W. Barzun
St. Paul’s Cathedral
November 24, 2016
What a joy to be here.
Here we are. Nearly 400 years since English pilgrims explored distant shores and shared that first feast of Thanksgiving with native Americans in Massachusetts.
And now here — back in England where those habits of hospitality live on. With the team at St.Paul’s Cathedral opening up to welcome this influx of my fellow Americans and our friends from around the world each year.
This is my fourth time up here, and my last as ambassador.
A lot has happened in both our countries since I stood here just 12 months ago.
If the conversations around your dinner tables recently are anything like the ones around mine, whichever way you voted in the Presidential Election or the EU Referendum, whether you were happy with the outcome or not:
The rhetoric and results of those campaigns revealed – something deeper –
On both sides of the Atlantic, on both sides of the political spectrum, we have come to recognize that too often we are talking at each other, talking past each other, or even worse, not talking to each other at all. It feels like there is a growing gulf – not between our nations, but within them. That’s what I’ve been struggling with. What might I do about it? What might each of us do about it?
For me, the beginnings of an answer can be found in some advice I got before becoming an Ambassador. I had a meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office before taking up my take up my first post. Looking for some guidance before I ventured into the unknown. So I sat down and asked the only question I had, “Mr. President, what advice would you have for a first time diplomat?”
He paused. Looked up to the ceiling:
“Yes” I thought to myself…“ I’d been planning to…that’s why I have come all this way…”
I had my notebook out, and my pen poised to write down his pearls of wisdom.
But that was all he said. That was the advice. It was just that one word:
So that’s what I’ve tried to do in my time here – especially to young people – the future of this Special Relationship of ours. Just this week I went to my 160th secondary school and have now listened to twenty thousand High School seniors across the United Kingdom. And I’ve tried to bring listening into nearly everything I do at the Embassy.
Now, I have to admit- this emphasis on listening has had its critics. Not long ago, I presented at a conference and pitched the power of listening. A man in the front row was (how do I put this) deeply UN-impressed. I called on him during the Q&A, he said in essence. “That’s all very well….but we have real issues to tackle. Isn’t listening just motherhood and apple pie?”
In the moment, I gave a rather lame & defensive reply – rattling off a list of serious policies I was dealing with. But upon reflection, he asked the right question and I gave the wrong answer. The key to the right answer lay in his question: apple pie.
My younger brother got married a few years ago. His best man gave a speech about apple pie I will never forget. He shared the story of my brother and him as teenagers when they cooked their first meal for a group of grownups. He said, “Let’s make Apple Pie- it’s simple. They’ll love it.”
My brother was skeptical, but said yes. So they started peeling apples and chopping apples. And peeling apples and chopping apples. The kitchen was a mess, there were apple cores everywhere. The grown-ups were about to arrive, and the pie was nowhere near ready. My brother turned to his friend and snapped:
“You said this would be easy!”
“No I did not!” his friend fired back
“I said it would be simple.”
“And it is. It’s simple, hard, repetitive, time consuming – and worth it.”
And then he added at the end of the speech, “Just like marriage.”
Simple. Hard. Repetitive. Worth it.
Just like marriage. And, I would add, just like listening, just like motherhood, and fatherhood, just like diplomacy, and just like democracy.
Do you know what’s not hard? Building walls.
I’m not talking about actual walls between countries- I mean the ones we build around ourselves. You can see for yourself. Imagine I give each of you – right now – a pile of legos in your lap and say: “Quick, build a wall or a bridge- you pick. Same points for each. You’ve got 30 seconds. Go.” – The choice is pretty easy. You’d build a wall. Just stand in one place and start stacking.
Now, “Building bridges” is easy to say, it’s harder to do. It takes three steps.
First, you have to see yourself. Know where you stand and what you stand for.
Second, you have to see the other. Not just tolerate the other person but acknowledge them and what they have to say – maybe even repeating it back to them. And then there’s a third step. You have to see yourself IN the other. You have to explore the other shore. It’s as simple…and as hard… as that.
So, as we sit around our Thanksgiving tables today, eating our pie – of whatever flavor. As we consider our uncertain future and our role as citizens in shaping it: Let’s do just that. Let’s each of us first take stock of ourselves. What we are thinking, how we are feeling, and why. That’s the first step.
Then, let’s look across the divide. Maybe it’s right across the table – at a cranky uncle or a sullen cousin. Or maybe it’s farther away to Sunderland or Shoreditch, South Dakota or San Francisco. And let’s put ourselves there too. And let’s see ourselves in them. And look back at us through their eyes.
And while we do that – put that pattern into practice – let’s think about what we can all be thankful for –
For the generations who came before us from the 1620’s on down, known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, who literally and figuratively explored the other shore.
For their successors – all of you here – who every day, in your own way, do the simple hard, worthwhile work of building the bridges within and between our democracies.
And for the generation coming after us, the future stewards of the Special Relationship, the young men and women with the courage and curiosity to keep on connecting, to keep on listening.
Thank you- and Happy Thanksgiving!