News2007 Commencement Address
Dr. Nils Daulaire
President, Global Health Council
This is not a typical graduating class for the United States in 2007. I’ve looked at the Plans and the projects of all the graduating seniors, seen the work being carried out from Indonesia to Vietnam to Bangladesh and India to Rwanda, Brazil, Chile, Peru and others that I haven’t mentioned, I’ve seen the attention to our historical and cultural roots from Job to Dante, to the Book of the Dead, and I’ve seen the flourishing of the arts, and even the ecology of our own lovely state of Vermont.
You’re not typical, because recently I heard about a survey that was done of American graduating college seniors for the class of 2007, and the top ambitions that were cited in the survey were “I want to be rich,” “I want to be famous,” and “I want to do great things.”
Now, I’m preaching to the converted here, I know that, coming to Marlboro, but what I want to talk about is the importance of thinking small. It’s been said, “If you wish to do good, you must do so in minute particulars.” Now, as you’ve heard, I’ve spent a good deal of my life away from Vermont, but I’ve lived in Vermont, it’s been my home since I was a teenager. And I deeply love our green hills; I woke up this morning in my family’s farm, woke up at the first light, about quarter to five, and I went out for a walk, just to enjoy the early spring. And I thought, what a blessing it is to live in a world that gives us such soft beauty.
Graduates want to be rich. Well, I know that I will have enough to eat today, I know that I will have a warm and snug place to sleep tonight. I know that my family is safe, and I know that, at least for the moment, I am in good health. What more can you possibly need to be rich? I’m fortunate beyond that in that I love what I do. So I look at these ambitions and I think, how much of this are we spinning our wheels with, and how much of this is right here for the taking?
Now, that richness that I just cited, shockingly enough, is not the universal norm. More than two billion of our fellow humans won’t have enough to eat tonight, today—won’t have a place safe and comfortable to sleep tonight, live in fear for their lives and the survival of their children—and that one-third of humankind should have a special call on our attention and our resources and our energies. Think about what’s going on today, the 20th of May, 2007. I’m wearing this pin here today because today is International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day, the third Sunday of every May, around the world, for the past twenty-four years. A candlelight memorial started early today in Fiji; it will end late tonight in Hawaii, and during the course of that almost 36 hour period, celebrations and commemorations will take place in 116 countries around the world involving more than a million citizens.
Why are they getting together, what is this issue that they’re memorializing? Well, today, the twentieth of May, 2007, is a happy day for all of us in this room and for the graduating seniors and their families; but it’s a sad day for the eight thousand people who will die today of HIV and AIDS, and it’s a sad future for the 11,000 people who will be newly infected with HIV, still an incurable, and generally, a deadly disease. What is the justice that a young woman in southern Africa can look forward to when she recognizes that the odds of her living her life HIV-free are lower than the odds that she will die of AIDS in the next 20 years? That’s the norm in some places of the world today.
And then, what about the children of the world? We recognize that thirty thousand of them will die today, almost all of them from easily preventable and treatable diseases that have long since been swept into the dustbins of history here in Vermont and in the United States. And what is the justice for a young mother in sub-Saharan Africa, or in Afghanistan, who recognizes that her newborn child has a one-in-four chance of not surviving to her fifth birthday? Thirty-five times the risk faced by our children here in this country. And what about those mothers themselves? Fifteen hundred of those mothers will die in pregnancy and childbirth today. They will die because they don’t have access to the most basic of birthing care, because no one has been trained in their communities, in their families, to recognize the danger signs of obstructed labor and hemorrhage and infection.
And the sad reality is that in some countries of the world still today, if you took a group of 14 young women just entering adolescence, one of those 14 will not survive her fertile years, she will die as a consequence of pregnancy and childbirth, and often those pregnancies unintended, and unwanted. That’s 250 times the risk faced by the young women in this room. We should be grateful for what we have, but we should recognize that the world is still not an equitable and just place, and we should think about what we can do to make a difference.
Now, none of this is inevitable—and none of it is irremediable. I’ve spent my entire adult career working in and around the issues of global health, and I’ve seen how very much can be done with very, very little in the way of resources. We spend here in this country on the order of $4,000 per man, woman and child in healthcare. Four thousand dollars. It’s been estimated that to provide the basic services that would save 4 million lives a year from the causes I’ve just described would cost about $35 per person living in those countries. One one-hundredth of what we spend as a matter of course.
Now, I’ve seen how much can be done with very little, and what is critical to recognize here is that you don’t have to do everything at once. You can do small things in a smart way, and then they build on each other.
I said that graduates outside of Marlboro College want to be rich and famous. Fame doesn’t really do that much either; I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work at something that is endlessly fascinating, lets me experience some of the most remarkable people and places on earth. I feel like at times I’ve been blessed with a time machine by the simple expedient of getting on an airplane and then walking for a couple of days into the mountains of Nepal, I’ve found the 14th century, and I saw the differences in life and perception that were the norm in our own civilization 600 years ago.
Now, it’s funny how things work out; this is not what I set out to do, as we heard in the [citation] I thought I was going to become a Vermont country doctor. I still live in Vermont, and I deal with countries, so maybe it’s appropriate, but none of this was planned or expected or part of this grand vision that I had when I graduated from college; in fact, when I graduated from college I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do, and went to medical school largely as a way of avoiding having to make a decision.
Louis Pasteur, the inventor, the discoverer of germ theory, said “chance favors the prepared mind.” And I would add to that that fortune favors the prepared spirit. You can’t make right what you don’t understand, and it’s said that to the blind, everything is sudden.
For those who have taken the effort to learn, the unexpected takes on meaning—and becomes part of a larger pattern, where things emerge where you yourself can make a difference in small ways. And that difference, like the butterfly effect, can compound and build, and truly have earth-changing impact. But it’s not based on trying to do great things; it’s trying to do good things well. Thurgood Marshall, the former Supreme Court justice—the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court and the lawyer who argued Brown vs. Board of Education, phrased it best, I think; he said, “I did what I could with what I had.” Don’t set out to fix things, but instead, set out to find out what the obstacles are in the way of the people who are experiencing them to fix them themselves. It takes you out of the realm of being a savior, and into the realm of being a good handyman. And that’s where we should be.
In fact, some of the most successful and happy people I’ve known are a midwife in Nepal; a community organizer in the Altiplano; an HIV/AIDS activist who’s HIV-positive herself in Malawi. They’d figured out what they needed to do and how they could make a difference in a small way, and that difference compounds every day. So what does it take to succeed in life? I think it takes five things. It takes roots, it takes values, it takes understanding, it takes compassion, and it takes patience. And it doesn’t hurt if you’ve got a sense of humor. So cherish your roots, live your values even when it becomes hard to do so, nurture your understanding every day; don’t accept things on face value, expand your compassion, and particularly for those who you think don’t deserve much compassion, find a reason and a way; and practice patience.
This has been a long and strange spring in Vermont, I’m fortunate enough to live here even though I’m away from it an awful lot; and every time I’ve come back in the last three months, it seems like there’s a late snowstorm or a late frost and everything has just taken a long time. Just a couple of weeks ago there was hardly a bud on the trees here, and I wondered whether spring was ever going to come. Today, walking around my farm and driving the hour and a half down to Marlboro, I see fresh spring foliage well-rooted in Vermont’s rocky soil that drinks in the gentle rain and transforms it to beauty and growth. It’s not a bad ambition. Trees are not ambitious, yet they define our landscape.
So: think small. If you look for meaning and joy in the smallest things, the big things will come of their own accord, and in their own time. As William Blake said, “to see the universe in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
Marlboro College class of 2007, this is your hour. Do good in minute particulars, and particularly, go out and live well.