This talk was delivered to the Easley Home Educators graduation ceremony, June 1st, 2012, at Rock Springs Baptist Church, Easley, SC.
Congratulations, class of 2012! Thank you so much for the honor of speaking to you and your loved ones on this most amazing day.
It is a proud moment, for several reasons. Because you worked hard to be here. Graduation, in the current educational milieu of this country, is a great accomplishment. All too many young people will not graduate, and will struggle to find work or further education of any sort.
It’s a proud time because you graduated as home-schooled students. As the father of four home-schooled kids, I understand. You have learned to be self motivated. You have, unlike so many students in your generation, been forced to learn to read, to write, to understand mathematics and science and so many other topics in remarkable detail. Your command of basic skills will launch you ahead of many young women and men your age.
Furthermore, you have smiled through the bizarre questions, like ‘how do you socialize?’ And ‘can you still go to college?’ You have smiled as you used big words, and referred to political, cultural and theological issues that others your age found odd. You have the ability to relate to small children and aged seniors. And you are polite and kind.
And you have faced, with courage, the reality that home-school means endless school; and that your mothers and fathers have turned everything into a learning opportunity, from the chemistry and physics of cooking, to the history and economics of driving across the country. (My own children faced ‘Junior Ranger Badges’ at every National Monument we visited!) You, as home-schoolers, know all the best fast food restaurants in which to do algebra, and the best ways to occupy yourself in assorted area parks on ‘park day.’
This constant learning, from CDs to lectures, books to online classes, flashcards to coops, was a gift your parents gave to you. A gift that came from their own time, from their own wallets, and from their own hearts. For they taught you with passion, knowing that education is power.
It’s a proud day because you have been cutting edge students. Although the home-school movement is growing, it is still considered a little odd, a little experimental, a little edgy…and a little weird by the establishment. Good for you. Some of history’s greatest individuals have been odd, experimental, edgy and weird. Go back and read again. From the great patriarchs to the apostles to Jesus himself, from the church fathers to the medieval thinkers to the renaissance scientists to the American founders and up until the current day, experimental, edgy folks get things done. Status quo is a rut that our nation cannot afford.
You are to be congratulated for being part of a paradigm shift in education. Education, science, economics, medicine, publishing, everything is in a constant state of change. Be proud that you were on the leading edge of part of that shift. If things never changed, you might be competing for jobs as telegraph clerks or steam engine mechanics. Now you have cars and iPads. It’s an exciting time to be alive, and to be your age.
So what can I say to you? What gift can I give you besides congratulations? I have thought about this. And I have realized that I can give you lessons I learned on my own journey into and through medicine. They are not unique to medicine, so you must pay attention.
Your future may not look the way you expect. This is very important, but also very exciting. Only God knows your path, from beginning to end. Your job is to follow it, as closely as you can, according to His designs.
When I went to college, I intended to be a journalist. God had other plans, and led me into medicine. And then, back into writing. He has a sense of humor that way. But my medical training and experiences made me a far better writer than I would have been otherwise. So whatever you intend to do, move forward. But do not be shocked or upset when the path takes a turn you did not expect or intend. None of it will surprise God.
Next, things worth doing will often be difficult. When I changed from journalism to sciences, I had to learn…science! I had spent my high school career carefully avoiding difficult math and science courses. So, I had to navigate trigonometry and physics, organic chemistry and various physiology classes in college, and it was not easy. I spent hours studying. I missed fun events. My wife, then girlfriend, went to football games with my room mate. But in the end, I was admitted to medical school because I worked hard to reach that goal, despite having little initial preparation for it.
In addition, some things in your life will be scary; but that can be the most fun of all. When I went to medical school, and to residency training after medical school to learn emergency medicine, it was thrilling and frightening. Human anatomy, going into surgeries, seeing the sick, learning to treat the wounded and comfort the dying. I flew in a helicopter to accident scenes, I intervened when no one else knew what to do. My heart raced, my mined reeled, but I was thrilled. You’ll know you’re in the right place in life when you feel that enormous, hear-wrenching excitement, whether it be medical school or mother hood, opening a business or opening a church, serving your country, or serving the poor family down the road.
Another point: be bold. Volunteer for opportunities. See what needs to be done. Do what no one else will do. There have been times in my career when I was the only physician available to do the thing necessary to save a life. And I did it, despite uncertainty and terror. That is the sort of living on the edge that I believe God calls you to. When the angel spoke to Gideon, who was working making flour, he said, ‘Hail mighty warrior,’ and Gideon said, ‘excuse me?’ This is life. Moving forward with courage into new places, new experiences.
Also, Be the one who does the job. Be reliable. Whether it’s in caring for your own husband, wife or child, or showing up for work on time, or coming up with new ideas for your company, be that person. When I was in medical school, surgery residents who were years ahead of us would say to students: ‘Help me, don’t hurt me.’ One of the most maddening things I experience in medicine is when I try to do the right thing, but have to endure others shirking their duties. Do you want to succeed and be valuable? Show up, work hard, do your duties and go above and beyond.
This next lesson has been hard for me, but remember that doing the right thing in life may not result in rewards here and now. My patients sometimes curse me, or threaten me; a few times with death!. Your teachers and employers will not always be kind. But you serve a higher cause. And your reward is not confined to this life. So do the right thing in the full knowledge that it may not result in temporal things. Or, as my physics teacher said to a student (who wanted to be rewarded for not cheating), ‘Ah but the reward for virtue is not in this life.’
Furthermore, Please go into life realizing that people can be very good and very bad. Because they, and we, are all fallen individuals. Pascal, great scientist and theologian that he was, said that humans are both wretched and glorious, wretched for their sinfulness and glorious from being made in God’s image. If you keep both truths in balance, you will not be surprised. The emergency room is a place where this is often visible; as my patients can be gentle felons, or profane old ladies and every mix in between. Life will be like that; so keep in mind this saying: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.’ One of my favorite quotes, by Philo of Alexandria. In the midst of life’s difficulty, use the kindness and compassion you learned at home and from your faith. It, above all else, will make you unique in a hard world.
Whatever you do, your job, your position, your money, must not define you. If they do, you will be unhappy in the end, as you endlessly search for greater positions or more money. I have seen this in medicine and other fields. And the physicians whose entire identity lies in medicine are the most miserable individuals I deal with in my work. You see, the human heart cannot be satisfied either by money or authority, but only by God. So put Him first, and your family and friends next, then order the rest as you see fit, whether job, country, hobby or hamster. But have your most critical priorities straight.
In medicine, things are always changing. I must learn. Science evolves, society changes, new diseases appear as well as new drugs, both legal and illegal. I cannot rest in the science I learned in medical school between 1986 and 2000, when MRI was rare and HIV was new. And so with you. You must continue to learn. Read, read and read. Listen to po-dcasts. Take online courses. Whatever you do, let your mind grow as you learn more about God’s creation and people, and about the Creator Himself. I don’t care if you are a ditch digger or a mechanic, a PHD or a stay at home father, a Marine infantryman or a dog-walker, be the smartest one you can be. Learning is not limited to high school, or college and must never stop. As home-schoolers, you are uniquely suited to understand this truth, having been raised, and disciplined to learn.
Finally, (and we’re almost done) everyone has a role to play. Whatever you do, if it is your calling, if it is where you believe God would have you, do your work, do your education, as if it mattered. My job would not be possible without nurses and housekeepers, paramedics and pharmacists, engineers and biologists, manufacturers of devices and wrappers of bandages, police officers and administrators. There is no ignoble work if it is done to God’s glory and to the fulfillment of your gifts and passions.
So there it is. The life lessons I’ve learned from a career in emergency medicine. I gift them to you. Some of you will be physicians, some will not. But the lessons remain. In summary:
The future will not look the way you expect; it will probably be far better
Things worthwhile will be difficult.
Fun and terrifying may go hand in hand.
Move into new experiences with courage.
Show up and be reliable.
The earthly rewards for good behavior may not exist.
Humans are wretched and glorious, but always be kind.
Do not be defined by money or position.
Never stop learning…ever.
Everyone who works honestly matters.
May God bless and keep you now and always.
And may you always remember the words of Isaiah 30:21: ‘Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Congratulations! The world, and all of us here, await your greatness.