Dean Pizzo: Now I must say that, um, as I now turn to invite our commencement speaker to come forward, I want to just put a couple of things in perspective. There’s really nothing in my expectations of life when I was working as a physicians scientist at the National Institutes of Health decades ago in the late 1980’s that would have ever made me believed that my life would cross with a Hollywood actor, um, it just didn’t seem to make sense. But Paul Michael Glaser and his wife Elizabeth did cross with my life in a very significant way and they did so because of an illness, one that we were working on in our labs and clinics which was AIDS in children. Paul’s wife Elizabeth became one of the most important and significant advocates on behalf of pediatric research, perhaps ever, in this country. She really, almost single handedly transformed the way we think about approaching the disease by putting a human face on it by saying this is important. She acquired her disease in the early 1980’s when she was delivering her first child, Ariel who was born with placenta previa, she received blood transfusions, breast feed and Ariel became infected unbeknownst to her because at that time blood was not screened for the HIV virus. She went on to have a second child Jake, who also became infected. Elizabeth and Paul did something that I think is quite remarkable. In my experience, in caring for individuals with a complex disease over a long period of time, I’ve learnt that individuals that face disease, are never neutral. One of two things happens. They either really break down and suffer the consequences or they get stronger. In the case of Elizabeth and in the case of Paul, they got stronger. Rather than backing away, they moved forward,.. they moved forward not only on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of regions of children around the world. HIV disease as a consequence of research has been largely controlled in this country, but there are about 1800 infants being infected every day in the rest of the world, particularly in Africa. The work that the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has done has helped to change that and its changing it now both internationally and in the states nationally. Paul Michael Glaser, who was once the Starsky in Starsky & Hutch, ah, and um, made a guest appearance in the recent movie rendition of that and who has had a very productive career as a director , as a writer and as an actor. I’m sure in his life never anticipated that he would be the father of a child who died and was infected and would have lost his wife to this disease. It’s changed him in significant ways and made him become an advocate as well. He followed Elizabeth and became Chairman of the Board and now serves as Honorary Chair and really to me, as did Elizabeth, it underscores an important reality..that people can change the world, they really can change the way we think and do things. So I’m very pleased to introduce our commencement speaker today, Paul Michael Glaser. (clapping and cheering)
PAUL: Thank you, Dean Pizzo. (laughs) I must admit I get a kick every time I say that. “Dean Pizzo…Phil, what are we doing here?
Dean Pizzo: I say the same thing!
PAUL: (laughs) Well, we share that.
PAUL: Ah, as you students were filing in, you graduates, as you were filing in, I recall, ah, even though I have a Master’s degree, I have never been to a graduation, even my own, ah, and this is the second graduation that I have spoken and I find it to be a very emotional experience for me, ah, ah, I find it to be a beautiful thing to watch, students and their families celebrating what is to my way of thinking a landmark achievement, and ah, it’s a great honor for me to be here and I thank you Dean Pizzo for inviting me and I thank you for giving me your ears and some of your time and I hope I can contribute somewhat to your experience not only of today, but also, um of your memory that will resonate through the rest of your careers and your lives.
When Dean Pizzo asked if I would speak at your commencement, I, I was complimented, given that, ... as much as a part of me may have wanted to have been a Doctor or a researcher at one time, ... .apart from spending a fair amount of time with Doctors and researchers over the past fifteen years, I had little knowledge, I had little knowledge of the journey to becoming a Doctor, or a researcher. In college, where I received a B. A., majoring in English Lit and Theatre, I had friends who were pre-med. Their curriculum was intimidating. I failed Chemistry, I only passed Biology because I had had a very rigorous teacher of the subject in High School. I went on to three semesters of graduate school while my doctor-in-training friends proceeded on their journey through med. school, internship and residency and the closest I ever got to that world was playing the role of a Doctor. A Dr. Peter Chernak on the soap opera, "Love of Life." (lots of laughter) He fought the establishment, slept on a cot in his lab, cooked polish sausages over a bunsen burner, and seduced the nurses. Not bad! (laughter) He also had the ability to heal people whenever the writers felt like it.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to address a conference of Surgeons by a Doctor who wanted to promote collaboration amongst this rare breed of specialists. I found myself remembering a surgeon who had worked on me after I had had a terrible accident when I was a young man. His name was Edgar Holmes. He was tall, he was white haired, he was a New England Yankee. Quiet,… very imposing. And then I thought on when, as a boy, I had gone hunting with my bow and arrows, ... and the first animal that I had shot was a squirrel. I shot him right through his mid-section. And when I picked him up, skewered, still alive, clawing at, gnawing on my arrow, I felt sick to my stomach. It was as if I was holding his mortality, his and mine, on that feathered shaft. And then I thought on the stories I had heard of young doctors in training, experiencing their first cut, be it frog or cadaver, or more to the point, their first brush with their vulnerability to death and the ensuing fear. And I thought of how my Yankee Dr. Holmes along with these men and women had gone on, as we all do, distancing ourselves, inuring ourselves to that moment of vulnerability, seeing this as a necessary thing to do in order to 'maintain the objectivity' to be a good doctor, a good surgeon. For, to go into the fear, to relive the fear, the vulnerability with every cut, every opening of the human body, every exposure to mortality… would be unthinkable, destructive. How could a person survive the emotional stress? Maintain control of their lives? Continue to be creative? 'Maintain control.' 'Be creative.' The first is a conceit that labors in the illusion that control is achievable. The second, 'being creative,' ironically requires a 'loss' of control. I have spent the last six years reinventing my career, studying writing. And many is the time that I will sit down with a specific task or objective in my head as to where I want to go, what I want to say,.. and try as I may, I can't make it happen. Then I remember that what is happening for me, in that moment, right then, is in fact, the only thing I know. And if I allow myself to write from that place, acknowledge what is, surrendering my need to control it's outcome, design its direction, I will discover what it is I and my characters want to say and do. The fear, of course, is that it will have nothing to do with what I am trying to write. And my experience, always, without fail, is that when I have faith in what is, when I own what is, then my characters immediately join me in my search, my journey, and since the story is coming from me, my characters can then take me by the hand and lead me through it. They can talk to me…when I have faith.
When I direct actors, I often try to put them in a place where they have no control, where they are most scared and have to experience themselves naked, in the moment, only able to cope with what is. And when it happens, and they realize they're not going to die from it, the experience is a high. It’s a re-affirmation of faith. A connection with something larger than themselves to which they concede all control. And this 'connection' with something larger is what one might call 'being creative.' Whether it is acting, painting a sunset, telling a story, inventing a new piece of software, selling a new line of dresses, discovering a cure, healing a patient or affecting a dialogue between mortal enemies, ... it is what we, as human beings, are all about. We live to commune. We live to create. Our enduring biological and spiritual drive is to create, to live in the act of becoming. It is not a choice. It is not something over which we have any control. It is our experience of our existence. Our choice is what we do with our minds, what we do with our fear.
When my life got caught up in the AIDS epidemic, Doctors were no longer an occasional visit for a physical or some passing concern, researchers no longer magicians I read about in magazines and newspapers. In my journey of losing a wife and a daughter to AIDS, and then chairing the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation, I found myself talking to and listening to, watching Doctors and researchers. I got to see their humanity, often guarded, hidden behind their white coats, and their stethoscopes and microscopes. I got to see how they dealt with what they knew and what they didn't know. I got to feel their frustration, see their defense against their fear of being powerless. I got to experience their humanity, their hope, their need to find, to do, to be,.. to heal. Those that were creative, and those that were reactive and functional, incurious plumbers and electricians, unable to hear , ... to listen to the quiet screams for help coming from our common struggle with life and death. Those that saw themselves as still learning, searching for themselves in the plight of others, and those whose priority was the financial success, security and need for an identity as being valid, someone of importance. One of the interesting aspects of age is perspective, getting to see how human behavior cuts across all walks of human life… and allows us, if and when we choose, to see ourselves as having more in common with our fellow man than we would like to believe. It gives us who are traveling only slightly ahead of you, the advantage of hindsight, of seeing our youth in you, knowing what you don't, what you can't, that we really have been there, felt and known everything that you have felt and known; the sex, the drugs, and yes, the rock and roll,… and as amusing or unappealing as that may seem to you, .. that we really have experienced so much of your struggle.
However, our hindsight does not give us your perspective of this world you're inheriting. Of the greater amount of information you process each day. Of how it feels to be in your skin, living cheek to jowl, so much closer through television, computer technology and airplane travel to your fellow man. Of how it feels to hear so much more acutely the howling vacuum of anonymity. And of how it feels for you to know consciously or subconsciously that we are, for the first time in the history of mankind living with an awareness that this planet, this mother earth, our host, provider of finite resources; is being overpopulated, polluted and used up. And we can only imagine, when we are not in our own soup, how you deal with the dawning awareness that in your world there is less of everything. There’s less wealth concentrated in fewer hands. Less education, less opportunity, less hope for our children, for our children's children to secure a future. And in the balance of the universe, of life, where there is less, there is always more. More fear, more violence, more disease. A greater gulf between those that have and those that do not. A greater need to hold on to what we have, to deny it to others, to hide behind religious and political philosophies, belief systems that temporarily comfort us with the illusion of feeling powerful, righteous, right, in control, because the alternative; to acknowledge how fearful we ALL are, is just too damn scary, too damn chaotic.
When Dean Pizzo wanted me to speak, he asked that I speak to my experience for the necessity for research and advocacy in the world of science and medicine. We are living in an age where more and more our choices have to do with the practical exigencies of our existence,…securing a place in the world for our selves, our families, paying the rent, putting food on the table, providing an education, a future. Research doesn't often provide for such security. In the world of pediatric medicine, for example, there are other applications of one's science,.. scientific and medical training that are far more lucrative.
I could speak to you of the importance of seeking, searching and re-searching, .. of how much of a difference advocacy has made in AIDS, as well as so many other areas. I could also speak to the stagnation of research, of how our fear of change, fear of the unknown causes us to accept, even defend the status quo… avoid the tough questions to which there seem to be no answers. I could speak to you of the lack of progress in impacting AIDS the world over and the dearth of researchers in our schools and hospitals. However, today I want to speak to you of that part of us that allows us to help ourselves and each other in the face of our fear. That part of ME, that in the beginnings of this AIDS pandemic that hit my family, embarked on a journey wherein following the death of my daughter and the impending death of my wife, I was given a choice: a choice to either be a victim in my perceived powerlessness to do, to affect anything, and in that place to become a bitter old man, or to find in my helplessness and fear, a way to honor my journey, find my heart, learn and grow. And I was fortunate to have been shown that choice.
It is said that only those that have experienced their own mortality through the loss of a loved one or a near death experience of their own can know that choice, because that is the greatest experience of our fear of helplessness; our mortality. I would venture to say that, while we may go to great lengths to deny it, we are quickly approaching a time when this fear, this extreme helplessness.. is showing itself in more and more ways as it bubbles, roils beneath a surface that we are ever determined to keep calm, controlled, and in place. Our fear is an anathema to us, and we go to great lengths to avoid it… to the detriment of our creativity, of our very act of being, and we sacrifice our ability to search, and in the accepting the security of the status-quo, to re -- search, to re--discover, to re -- attach to that body of knowledge of which we are all a part. To re-member, that which we all know and knew at the moment of our birth. We sacrifice our experience of ourselves to be created, and to be creative. And in the name of security we make choices away from our hearts, away from our real needs as individuals, and as a civilization.
And yet we have a great need to experience our fear on some level. We tell cataclysmic stories, movies like 'The Day After,' where we get to experience our common fear as well as our ability to overcome that fear. For that is the sociological and spiritual function of story-telling; to reaffirm our ability to overcome our fear of death. Yet, how is it that in our daily lives we create whatever aversion we can to our fear; be it over-indulgence in food, drugs, work, or our independence on judgments that assure us that we are right, they are wrong, they are weak, we are strong, they don't know, we do, ... our way is best, theirs isn't. How is it that our fear is an anathema to us? That we go to extreme lengths to keep our fear at bay and only allow ourselves the experience of it in the relative comfort and security of our stories, our religious rituals, our movies, our music, and the heroic exploits of our sports heroes? What is this fear that won't go away, try as we may? This fear that lurks in the shadow of our lives, always there whether we want to acknowledge it or not. The Great Creator of Denial? And yes, that ain’t no river in Egypt.
The great Masters ... Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, and others studied and spoke to this fear. They spoke to this fear of our mortality and our seeming powerlessness to do anything about it, powerlessness to affect the inevitability of our animal selves. They studied and taught that our fear is not our enemy, not something to be avoided at all costs, contrary to the romantic notion that " There is nothing to fear but fear itself." That when we experience our fear, when we say the words ... "I am scared," we have the choice, the ability to acknowledge that being 'scared' is not who we are. It is not our identity. And while there is a part of us that is scared, there's also a part of us that isn't scared. That we can choose to identify the location and parameters of our fear as well as those parts of us that are not experiencing the fear. I feel fear in my belly, or my chest, or my throat, ... but right then, I do not experience it at the top of my head, in my little finger, at my elbow. How is that? And where am I making this observation from? What part of me is able to see my pain, my fear as something apart? See my fear as something apart? Is that part of me the same part that allows each one of us, as if suspended in the air and looking down from above, to see ourselves, me see myself standing here, talking, you see yourselves sitting there, listening, bored, confused, .. it’s a long morning and I know you want to get out of here… Is that the same part that's able to watch ourselves think and feel? Is that place, from which I am seeing all of this, is that who I really am: my awareness, my consciousness, my knowing place that is a part of all knowing, ... to which we are all a part of?
And when we are able acknowledge this , see our fear and pain from this place apart, to not say "I am scared" as if that was who I was, we then have the opportunity to say: " Boy, this is really difficult being a human being. Difficult knowing at a cellular level, a biological level that once conceived, our clock is ticking, our dying has begun, and we have no control over that." And from this witnessing place in us, we have the opportunity to watch our egos, our minds, whirring and burning in an effort to create some illusion that we do have some control, some power. We have the opportunity to see how our minds create belief systems, illusions of ownership, judgments of what is good, bad, false, true, beautiful, ugly ... AND that none of it changes the basic truth of the death of our lives in the constancy of change. And in that opportunity to witness our plight as human beings in the presence of our fear, our mortality, we can choose to hate ourselves, or to love ourselves. We can choose to feel compassion for ourselves. And when we choose compassion for ourselves, we can find compassion for others. And at that moment, we can know in our hearts, in our beings that we all indeed, are one. What the Masters learned and practiced is that it is necessary to know our fear, to acknowledge, sit with our fear, in order to know our hearts. That our acknowledgement of our fear is the path to our compassion, the path to our capacity for love. We need our fear, ... ..in order to find our love. They go together. Ying and Yang.
Are we living in the greatest level of fear known by mankind to date? Are there more without than with in the world today? In this country today? Is the gulf between rich and poor widening? Is there less education for the masses? Less taught? Does that leave more and more with less and less options, choices, hope for a future, for their children's future? Yes. Does today's world offer so little to these people that only an afterlife seems a plausible answer? Yes. Has the world become so materialistically saturated in the wake of our American way of life and so spiritually bereft that extreme fundamentalism is growing stronger and stronger, not only in Islam, but in Christianity and Judaism? Do we know this extremism in our own country, in our own government? And are we really asking why so many are laying down their lives, lives bereft of hope for a future, and taking other lives with the weapons we have sold them, profaning the dreams we have sold them? And then taken away from them? All in the name of 'Democracy' when what we really mean is 'capitalism,' exploitation, and ownership. All in the name of 'human rights,' when we have grossly violated the rights of so many humans in pursuit of our own material interests? All in the pursuit of control.
Are our arms tightening around what we own? Grasping onto what we have, what we think we need to control? Isolating ourselves from ourselves from our own humanity as well as the world's? Where will we be in this country be in ten, fifteen years from now when China is the financial juggernaut of the world and we have only a massive cache of weaponry to maintain a reactive control over a disappearing marketplace and a presence in a world where others have chosen to trade their goods elsewhere? Are we truly so blind to historical perspective because our leaders either cannot read, or are too proud and narcissistic, afraid of their own fear, afraid to read, refusing to see the bloody writing on our walls? How much larger do we have to make those letters so that our leaders will heed the lessons of those who came before? How are we to try to find our hearts in this time? How are we to find our creativity? How are we to find our compassion? Our humanity? How are we to grow when so much of the world around us is dying?
To be a good doctor, a good researcher is to be one who can listen, assimilate and diagnose information from without, but can also listen and hear what is being said from within themselves. Committed to sitting with their own fear and vulnerability in order to learn from themselves in the effort to heal, to discover. Committed to pursuing the acknowledgement that we are all the same, all one. Committed to looking beyond what they think they want to find, to know. To expand the parameters of what they deem feasible, controllable. To seek, to learn where it is not safe and comfortable, but to have faith in the wider perspective where all disease, all life are a part of the 'one.' Connected, and as connected, collaborative. And that to learn from this collaboration, that we must collaborate ourselves, must work together as one. Learn and feed off each other's humanity, each other's fear, hope, and faith. Experience our compassion and our creativity in each other.
We live our lives to die. With each exhalation. Each letting go. Each moment of release, ... we seek, as lemmings to the sea, to die into the 'one,' into the 'all,' the 'everything' of existence. We practice this in the way of our lives. We worship it in our heroes, who, in the face of great adversity and symbolic or very real death, are able to stay present, acknowledge their fear, and from that place of awareness, of consciousness, are able to achieve heroic results. We rejoice in it when we stand with our hero to home plate, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, score tied, two outs, last game of the world series and he hits a home-run. We rejoice in it in the well hit golf ball or tennis ball. In the transcendence of a performance, a great discovery, a heroic sacrifice, in the birthing of a child, in the communion with anything or any body that gives us our sense of being one. Of belonging. We seek and search to surrender to a higher ground, ... a place of peace and oneness. A state of being that is change, where we get to visit, pass through, pass from, and let go of.
Today is but a moment along the way of your journey, of your children's journey. The level of opportunity for compassion, for love, for the human-ness of our beings to evolve past our animal selves, is commensurate with the amount of fear, hate and destruction we are experiencing on this planet. You can and will be cowed by it. It will constantly infect your lives, try to beat you into apathy and cynicism, threaten to trample your hopes and dreams into regrets and self recriminations. It will want to seduce you into hate and anger, and impatience and intolerance, harden you into judgment. It will not deprive you of your God given right to choose. Your divine right to gain strength and succor from the innate knowledge that we belong to each other, to the one, to all. That there is an irrefutable truth to our existence proved by our ability and choice to acknowledge our consciousness. This is your inheritance. This is what all the lives that have come before you have given you. This is what you can give to your children. To the world. To the universe. That you have the choice of consciousness. You have the choice to practice that choice.
In closing, I would like to share a favorite poem of mine that I suspect many of you are already familiar with. To me, it's beauty that…. continues to reverberate in me, in the years after I first read it.
Two roads diverged in a wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And perhaps having the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(- Robert Frost)
Congratulations and good luck.
ALL Pictures copyright and courtesy of SUMC Office of Communication & Public Affairs.