Commencement addresses have a way of becoming classic formulations of what matters most in life. It has something to do with the Polonius/Laertes nature of the occasion: final words of wisdom from someone older to a young person before setting off into a harsh, tricky world. Recently, Kaveh Alizadeh spoke to the graduating class as Dwight Englewood School, and I found his observations deeply moving. Here are some excerpts:
It is incredible to be here when Dwight Englewood School has turned 125 years old and to see that it looks so good. What a great place to be. You have finished the grueling high school years, studied hard to take all your exams in preparation for college, finally got into a school that can calm the anxiety of your parents at least for a few days. What now? Time to look forward to your graduation gift! The gift that will make it all worthwhile after all these years; the one you have dreamt about; the one you have asked your mom or dad or grandma and grandpa to get for you! What’s it going to be? And I don’t mean the piece of paper you will get today- the diploma!
Well let me tell you the one that rocked my world. I had to wait 16 years after I graduated from here to get my gift! The year was 2000. As a young surgeon, I made a trip to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the Latin American country of Bolivia. While visiting a poor clinic in the outskirts of the city, I was introduced to a child who had severely burned his hand at the age of two. You see, his mother was cooking on an open fire and two year old Eduardo ran over to pick up his toy but as he got close to the boiling sound of water in the pot, the beautiful orange glow of the fire stole his attention and he decided to pick up that perfect round glowing piece of coal. Eduardo’s mother dropped everything when she heard Eduardo’s shriek and ran over to him but by the time she got to him, the coal had melted and welded the flesh of his hand together like a molten wax of an overturned candle. She wrapped Eduardo and took him to the local clinic where after waiting for 5 hours, she was told she needed to go to the capital at La Paz, a city high in the Andes mountains and 18 hours away by bus.
Once Eduardo got there with his mother and the rest of the family had to sit outside the hospital grounds for three hours and were told here were another 120 people in front of them. So they slept on the dirt road outside of the hospital for 2 days before their turn came up. Eduardo was triaged by the nurse, and then the emergency room doctor and then finally the surgeon resident who said “It is too late now: The boy has lost the function of his hand.” He would never be able to write, nor pick up a ball, and never be able to work.
Such is the state of nearly 11 million people every year in the developing world where there is no access to specialty medical care which means children like Eduardo are doomed to live with disability for the rest of their lives because of a simple accident.
Well, I had a chance to meet Eduardo in the clinic at the outskirts of Santa Cruz that day after his mother had heard about our group of volunteers setting up a surgical mission at that hospital. I looked at his hopeful big eyes on a little body and peeled him away from his mother to take him to the operating room. We borrowed a small piece of skin from his left groin and then released all the tight bands in his scarred and contracted hand and placed the skin graft in between the open areas and fixed it in place with stitches, pins, and a cast. One week later, I took away the cast and Eduardo was able for the very first time in his memory to look at the palm of his hand and see all 5 fingers looking back at him. I stuck around for another week at the hospital and would watch everyday as Eduardo would gently tap a balloon with his newly open hand as delicate as an opening flower.
And then I got the gift that changed my life forever. On my last day as I was ready to leave Bolivia, the doctors and the nurses at the clinic organized a farewell party for me and sang me local songs and taught me the local customary dance. Then I saw Eduardo walk in with his mom and hand me a gift. Using the hand I’d restored to him. It was an egg!!
The mother explained that she had asked her husband to bring an egg with him from their farm back home and wanted me to have it to thank me for giving her son the ability to work in the farm: “ The egg is from the most important thing that we have – our animals and I want you to have it”! That was the moment!!
That was the moment when I got that rush of when you get a gift that make you feel so good! The moment when you have received a gift that by itself is meaningless, but the experience gives you so much pleasure that you want to keep going back! And for those of you who have done community service, that is the gift!!
That is the high, the feeling that you have touched someone’s life by helping them, teaching them, or just by being there for them. Fast forward 14 years after I received my egg, and I have been fortunate enough to have started a foundation called Mission: Restore that brings free education to the doctors of the developing world so that children like Eduardo will have a chance to heal immediately after they have an accident. All of us at Mission: Restore receive the gift of pleasure when we travel to places like Afghanistan, Myanmar, or Tanzania and bring the gift of education and training that allows the local doctors in these places to take care of their own. But the volunteers at Mission: Restore are all very selfish as well. I was interviewed by CBS’ Scott Pelley for 60 Minutes and he asked me: “Why do you do what you do and why do you go to all these difficult places like Afghanistan at war time, or Haiti after the earthquake?” I answered: “ Because I am selfish!” If you take selfless and altruistic acts and measure the brain activity of people who provide them by looking at functional MRIs, you will find that their pleasure centers light up. I have watched my wife Nazgol who is sitting here with our kids do this over and over again when she gets up in the middle of the night to change our children’s diaper and breast feed them despite having to get sleep for her work presentation the next day.
So as you graduate and go out there, I hope you look for that rare gift, the one that comes out of nowhere, the one you never expected, but the one that you initiated because you cared about something or someone. That is your gift within you. The one that says change the world around you by serving your world. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”