The Graduation Speech
Delivered on May 16th, 2015 at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine Graduation Ceremony in Rochester, MN.
“Education doesn’t make you happy,” wrote the not yet demented Iris Murdoch, “Nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free – if we are. Or because we’ve been educated – if we have. But because education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. “
I was going to use a diving board analogy to locate us as graduates perched here today on something like a high dive platform of education, but then I felt like an impostor-a Minnesotan medical student pretending to be familiar with swimming pools, and so instead I’ve decided to liken medical school to curling. Curling, the sport in which a massive, polished stone slowly makes its way down a narrow rink of ice while sweepers frantically scratch the ice in its path to coax the stone a hair’s width this way or that. I’ll leave it up to you to assess whether you identify more with having been a spastic sweeper or the heavy stone—either way, today is the day we arrive together, finally, at the target circle.
If Murdoch is to be trusted, and education is the means by which we realize we are happy, then after all these years of education, after the long, long shuffle down the ice rink, should we not then be some of the happiest and most self-realized people around?
Happiness is a funny thing. Even on a day like today, I imagine most of us in this room can think of just a few more things to make us happier still. Boxes we have yet to check, mile markers we have yet to pass.
Dear classmates, when I asked you some month ago “If a genie were to come out of a bottle of whatever you happen to be drinking right now, and ask you for three wishes, what would those three wishes be?” You could not have known that I, in fact, possess Magic Lamp genie-style powers; I was saving that news as your graduation present.
Graduation ceremonies are such magical, future -projecting spectacles that the genie concept, especially with this outfit, seemed more than apt. And, of course, the wishes you sent to me were a fascinating psychological cross section of the future of medicine. As taxonomied according to desire, the Class of 2015 is a cast of heroic characters but I’m sure all of you here today, faculty, friends and family already know the full truth of this.
It is said that the newspapers of the future are all blank. But in the world as it should be, and if all goes well, as it shall be, by the powers invested in me as a self-employed Genie to proclaim the wishes of the noble hearts of the Class of 2015:
There is world peace, there is no hunger, you all have become physical and mental giants, your partners are fulfilled, your children are even more successful than you shall be, you are in complete control of your neurons at all times, you serve the patients in greatest need, you love what you do on the day you retire with the same zeal that brought you into the profession, you do absolutely no harm, your debts are erased, your pride and selfishness has dissolved, it does not get in the way of love anymore, when you die, it is a swift death, but not before you find love, and not before you know thyself deeply. You never forget where you came from. These are your wishes, and at once they are all of ours, are they not?
A wish is a deeply personal thing, difficult to reveal to others, but one way or another our wishes declare themselves in time. We become them, don’t we? You are now a product of your own stale wishes from decades ago, both of those that came true and those that did not.
Now what of these genie-powers I claimed to have? I spent several years away from medicine reading novels, ahem, doing “extensive literary research.” I have been waiting for an opportunity such as this to share my one landmark discovery, which pertains to the story of Aladdin.
My thesis: the genie in the lamp character is a placebo. Whether or not the genie actually grants wishes is not nearly as important as the way in which the very asking bears the power to alter the Wishers themselves, to narrow and clarify their desires. And any of us can do this, asking for wishes.
The genie’s question, in its simplicity, forces us to assess our lives in simple terms, in limited terms. You only get three. I think most humans have about three things in common: we all want to feel loved, we all want to be heard, and we all want to be a part of something greater than ourselves. We define ourselves by what we wish for; we are emplotted to live in the slant of our risky desires. To identify your three wishes is to know your plot. Cultivate your wishes like seeds in a garden, it is after all, the only thing you are truly responsible to tend yourself.
There is a dark side to wishing, greed, of course. The business of wishing in a world with constrained resources creates a tenuous economy of desire—a natural balance in which we each exert a force of great moral consequence. My first wish (and yes, I have three) is that we may each carry forward into our lives what we practice here at Mayo—when we say the needs of the patient come first, I think we mean more generally, may the wishes of others come before my own. An ethical system made perfect if everyone plays, an impossible goal, I know, but one well worth striving after—the starry skies above me, the moral law within me sort of thing Kant talked about.
Declaring a wish also summons the reality of failure. Notice I did not say the possibility of failure. Our health, our minds, shall fail us, loved ones will suffer; our good fortune can at any moment spill out from cupped palms, between our fingers, like water. And there it is—the burning question that not just we carry, the hopeful graduates, but that each and every one of us in this room carries; you will see it burning in the eyes of each and every patient you care for in the days to come—together we all wonder: will I get my wish? And if not, what then?
“What if” is one of our most destabilizing questions. It is the fulcrum upon which the instant ever pivots. Upon which despair and happiness mete out their balance,…. perhaps. Education doesn’t make you happy, nor does freedom. Education cannot fight the Ifs, in fact, I’m quite sure education broadens our What If Differential. But education offers us the bold choice of happiness, whatever the if.
Today is the answer to a big If you had in Pawlina’s anatomy lab while you hovered over your cadaver four years ago untangling knot, the riddle, the harp of nerves in your arm pit, the brachial plexus. Who were your genies, then and now? Today we honor our family and friends, mentors and teachers, everyone here today who watered us just the right amount like the finicky cactuses Dr. Bostwick says we are. At this time I am proud to recognize two of our best professors, the Teachers of Year as voted by the students. Dr. Joe Grande and Dr. David Rosenman please stand and be recognized. We also recognize the Resident Teachers of the Year. Please stand as I call your name: Dr. Joy Beissel, Dr. Maile Parker, Dr. Diana Shewmaker, and Dr. Nafisseh Warner. My second wish is to be for others what you all have been for us—beacons and cornerstones at once. Thank you.
Education doesn’t make you happy. Happiness isn’t granted, remember, the genie is a placebo— happiness is realized. You are happy—today, you are seated here replete with hundreds of happy versions of your future selves dancing in your heads; all the different happy endings you are living toward. Your education is just part of the story of your happiness.
The greatest lesson I’ve learned in medical school is what illness teaches us—that life, properly lived, estimates very little future. We should enjoy our family gatherings this evening and this weekend without smug certainty that there are many more to come. We should treat this celebration—and each day, really—as life’s capstone—because if it isn’t, if we choose to defer our true happiness in wait for something greater yet to come, after watching all the right mile markers blur by, residency, chief year, fellowship, staff position, chair, professorship, grand poobah of your respective society— I fear the cost to us at the end, after all the boxes have been checked, might be to realize we have spent our lives climbing a ladder that may very well lead to nowhere at all—when all along, the place you thought you were headed toward—your Happiness– was not just beyond reach but was a choice within you all along, Wizard of Oz/placebo-genie-style: it was in your pulse, upon your tastebuds, with each fresh sound of your lungs, and surely, surely in the company and comfort of your loved ones.
My third and final wish is simply this: may you realize you are happy, may you carry this happiness with you always like a torch—with it may you light the dark halls of your hospitals with gratitude and grace. Find your happiness again, and again, there in your patients, in helping them and others to realize their own wishes, their own desires; may you be unto others just the placebo, the genie, they need.
The Happiness of Graduation Weekend Festivities as captured in photographs:
Dinner at Grand Rounds, and Family Reunion.
My Grandma Gigi
Graduation Day and Art on the Avenue
Waffle UP! Breakfast pre-Pig Roast on Syttende Mai (Norwegian Constitution Day– Go Vikings!)
Mojo Marinade for Pork for Post-Pig Roast Cubanos
Adapted from Food and Wine
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup lightly packed cilantro, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup lightly packed mint leaves, finely chopped
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, in one piece
In a bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except salt, pepper and the pork. Whisk in 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Transfer the marinade to a large resealable plastic bag and add the pork. Seal the bag and turn to coat; set in a baking dish and refrigerate overnight. When you are ready to make the sandwich, toast your bread bun (buttered if you wish), add a little mustard if you like that, some slices of Swiss cheese, and dill pickles. Reheat the Mojo-battered pork, or serve cold. YUMMY!
Izzy had a wonderful weekend, but like the rest of us, it’s time to rest and recover.
Haiku #134 (May 14)
Zzest is a curled beard,
a platinum fauxhawk, and
a red chandelier.
Haiku #135 (May 15)
Toasted with haikus
in triplicate. Love condensed
is no less heartfelt.
Haiku #136 (May 16)
can only do so much to
drain a body’s heat.
Haiku #137 (May 17)
Basin Street arrived
on the cobblestone driveway
of Fuchsia and Lime.