University of Maryland, School of Medicine – 2014 Commencement Address
Baltimore, Maryland – May 16, 2014
I want to thank Dean Reece. Dean, thank you for, not only leading this tremendous institution of healing, but also for your leadership in our state, and for stepping up on our most important healthcare issues like the implementation of the Health Enterprise Zones to reduce health disparities in our state
I also want to thank my friend and advisor, Michael Cryor, Chair of the Board of Visitors, who earlier received an honorary doctorate, Dr. Cryor congratulations and thank you, my friend.
To the esteemed faculty of the first public medical school in the nation, in this bicentennial star-spangled-banner year, family and friends, it is my great honor to say congratulations to the 2014 Graduating Class of the University of Maryland, School of Medicine.
As the former mayor of Baltimore, I have been witness to the lineage of your well-trained hands and hearts at the scene of trauma.
Too often, when our firefighters and police were wounded in their brave service I saw the lineage of your hands and hearts tend to their wounds. And I have also seen the lineage of your hands and your hearts when those in your profession had to touch their tears of families for whom they did their very best.
You’ve taken on a weighty, weighty profession.
But I want to start today by sharing some recent headlines about commencements, just so we’re all on the same page regarding the peculiar nature of this these sorts of remarks:
This is from the The Wall Street Journal: “Former UC Berkeley Chancellor is Latest to Withdraw From Commencement Speech.”
This from the New York Times: “After Protests, I.M.F. Chief Withdraws as Smith College’s Commencement Speaker.”
From the Washington Post: “Commencement speakers struggle to say something memorable at graduation.”
And my personal favorite, this one’s from Howard University’s commencement as reported in the Daily Mail: “’I am a unicorn!’ P. Diddy says he is a magical creature after being awarded honorary doctorate.”
But today isn’t about me; today isn’t about whether or not it is wise to agree to be a commencement speaker; nor is it about whether or not I too am a magical animal.
Today is about you…
Today is about taking a moment to give you the chance to relax, and think about all that you’ve accomplished so far…
Because soon, you will begin your residency – where you have chosen to spend your days working in a more stressful environment, for even longer hours.
If it’s not clear to you yet, I believe that there’s a certain madness in the path you have chosen.
And. I don’t mean this as an insult. It is merely an observation
Regardless of whether or not your particular obsession with success is defined in the DSM-Five, I know this institution well enough to understand that, anyone receiving medical care from you will be grateful for the heart that has driven you to reach this milestone.
Regardless of this year’s commencement headlines, my job today is still to take on the role of one who might share some wisdom.
And so, with you, I commence.
In the 1967 film, The Graduate, in which Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ben, is accosted at his own college graduation party by one well-meaning, middle-aged adult after another, they all ask “what are you going to do now? What are you going to do with your life?”
And they profess to be just thrilled about his potential career and material success ahead – and yet, they are all blind to the true color of his character, blind to the existential uncertainty in Ben’s soul.
He’s soon pulled aside by one well-meaning, buttoned-up, avuncular-type of a man who whispers, as if it’s the greatest secret in the world, “one word: plastics.”
Ben asks, “exactly how do you mean?”
Then the man says, “there’s a great future in plastics. Will you think about it?”
Ben assures him with all the sincerity he can muster in the face of that insufferability – “Yes, I will.”
Setting aside for a moment the possibility that some in the audience today may have misunderstood the subtext of that scene, and have in fact chosen, quite literally, to go into plastics…
– It is worth asking on this occasion: why has this scene had such resonance for so many after all these years?
I think the scene’s significance comes from its depiction of a susceptibility many of us have, especially in our later years, to talk about life as if it were a series of boxes to be checked:
Cozy, carefree retirement, check.
We tend toward thinking that life is what happens when we hear our names called at a graduation; or when we land the right job; or when we step finally into that cozy, carefree retirement of our dreams –
This picture of a successful life is the sort of thing you see in advertisements for retirement time-shares: twinkle-eyed baby-boomers watching sunsets in recliners next to sweating glasses of icy lemonade.
Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to aim for affluence or comfort, or for parents, aunts and uncles to hope for the niceties that come as rewards for hard work.
But at our best, we recognize that while this may be our default setting, it still isn’t quite the right way to think about what we’re working toward, or what we are working for.
Life is lived in the choices we make every moment, not in checked boxes.
For you, I hope your life will be lived in the eyes of the people who you are called to touch and to heal and to serve; in the eyes of the individual men, women, and children you will heal.
I also like to think this idea transcends medical school.
Best understood, any calling, any profession, any life should be best understood, and experienced, not as a résumé-building exercise, or a retirement goal, but as an ongoing and an urgently needed story.
But let’s give you a little extra credit:
The central and bald fact of what’s really happening here today, is that you,
you are among the few human beings on the planet who are actually choosing to write your story in the spaces that the rest of us try to hide from
You have chosen to write, in the first-person, for the next person – a story of looking mortality square in the eyes.
There is a certain madness in choosing what you have chosen.
It’s no wonder that the unsterilized rooms that surgeons of the early 20th century worked in were called theaters. As soon-to-be medical professionals, you are willingly putting yourselves at the center of our shared, but individually lived, human drama, which I think is not, at its heart, dreadful and terrible like most of us fear, but human, and if we choose, it is also loving, caring, generous, and brave.
When a beleaguered human heart is restored to new vitality;
When a cruel and raging cancer is held at bay;
When an infant is welcomed into this world healthy, and well,
Or an elderly parent passes away peacefully, free of pain, and with the tender dignity of a life well-lived; when lives are cared for or saved – as they are, unceremoniously, every day, by you and those of your calling – you preserve the delicate, powerful flame of love and humanity.
You write the story of life itself.
We all know, of course, that not every procedure, every patient, and every illness you encounter would make for a good television drama – let’s face it, plenty of your days will lack the thrilling epiphanic resolution of uncanny medical mysteries. We’re all sad about that fact that many of your workdays will be monotonous, and frustrating, and tiresome with routine.
And I know that if you’ve spent any time doing lab work or research here, you already understand that while the University gets to tout its record of promising experimental treatments and drugs, new vaccines for malaria and Milddle East Respiratory Syndrome, the engineering of devices like lung pumps, and new treatments for TBI, you knew it took your robotic pipetting, repetitive tissue sample testing, spreadsheet-filling – It took your choice to participate in those life-saving innovations, to build the astounding human progress that grabs headlines.
Progress is a choice.
Saving life, healing lives is a choice.
In the words of the great American Rabbi, Abraham Heschel, we have been given, “a terrible power — the power to choose.”
You’ve been given the power to stand in the center of the dramatic struggle between life and death.
For you, that will mean a rare and special sacrifice to live in that space between: first, the bureaucratic, paper-pushing, slow, and incremental lengthening of your white coats, and second, the furiously dramatic, razor’s edge, front-row participation in the drama of life itself.
Norman Mailer once wrote that, “a hero embodies his time and is not so very much better than his time, but he is larger than life and so, is capable of giving direction to the time; able to encourage a nation to discover the deepest colors of its character.”
Like it or not. You. Are. Our. heroes.
It takes time, and lots of it, to do that which you have already accomplished today. You are older and wiser than you were when you started.
But as you progress through your next steps, as you write your story, as you write our story, remember: time is not your master, it is your power — a force to be harnessed and directed to color your character.
I hope that for you, you will color your character with generosity, compassion, virtue, kindness, love of family, and love of others.
I hope you will build a better healthcare system for all, and a better future for the sick, I hope you will comfort the dying, and nurture a new generation.
And finally, on behalf of the people of our State, let me officially thank you.
To you and to your families, may God bless the work of your hands and your hearts.
Keep working hard.