The Defining Moment
A talk for A Light on the Hill Ceremony, Utah State University, 1 September 2020.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak at A Light on the Hill.
I am a mother and an ER doctor, but not so many years ago, I was a USU college student just like you, looking ahead, wondering what college and the rest of my life would be like. It is an honor to join you as you consider all these questions and embark on a new academic year.
The theme of the Light on the Hill ceremony is the importance of taking risks—specifically the importance of getting outside of our comfort zones, getting involved, and gaining knowledge.
As I thought about these things, I tried to think of stories of people I admire as well as stories from my own life that might be meaningful. But the more I thought, the more I realized that by going to college in the middle of a pandemic, all of you are already in the midst of taking what may be one of the biggest risks of your life. You are outside your comfort zones, and at a time of worldwide distress, you are valuing education and getting involved in something greater than yourself.
You have also likely experienced losses to get here. Some of you missed high school senior-year events, or internships or opportunities to travel because of the pandemic. You likely spent part of the last six months isolated from family and friends. Some of your parents have lost jobs. You may have even lost relatives or friends to COVID. Given all these things that are happening in our world, coming to college is an act of courage and a willingness to take a risk.
It is OK to grieve the loss of all the things I just mentioned, and to feel frustrated that college looks different that you imagined. What is happening in our world right now is stunning, disruptive, and painful. So if you need to take a moment every now and then to take stock of everything that has happened, that’s OK. I find that about once every two weeks I have a day where I feel sad and overwhelmed.
But even as we attend to that grief and count our losses, we can also consider how we want to conduct ourselves at this momentous moment, and how even, we can use these difficult experiences to help us grow.
I’ll share a personal story. Working as an ER doctor in the middle of COVID is not easy. Every time I go to work, I deal with sick and scared people, some of whom are very close to death. In addition to COVID, I also have to take care of regular ER patients—trauma victims, and people experiencing ordinary emergencies like heart attacks and appendicitis. Because COVID is so infectious, going to work also poses some risk that I will get sick, myself. Although I am very proud to do my job, sometimes it can be overwhelming.
As mother, I also worry about my children. I have a 5-year old son and 11-year old daughter. Both of them suffered—and experienced loneliness and boredom since school shut down. They have also missed out on many of their usual summer activities. I worry about the long-term consequences of their childhoods being disrupted in these ways.
One night, I could not sleep, with all these doctoring and parenting worries whirling around in my head. Browsing the internet, I ended up taking a deep dive into stories about Viet Nam prisoners or war—people like John McCain, who spent years living in terrible conditions and were frequently tortured. I was particularly moved by the story of Admiral James Stockdale. Years later, he explained that he survived not by staying optimistic that he
would eventually be freed, but by having faith that he could handle things, no matter how difficult they got. He also said something that brought me a lot of comfort during that sleepless night: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” That someone who had survived something much worse than a pandemic would later see it as something he would never trade strengthened me, gave me courage, and straightened my spine a little.
What I mean by this is that I think the pandemic will be the defining event of our lifetimes. So the question becomes not if the pandemic will define us, but how. There will be losses to grieve, for sure, but the pandemic also presents us with opportunity to grow. As it throws at us challenges like wearing masks, attending school online, distancing from friends and family we love—and maybe even losing some of those people—as it takes us out of our comfort zones, asks us to get involved in ways we never have, and forces us to learn new things—how do we want to respond? In James Stockdale’s words, how can we “turn this experience [of the pandemic] into the defining event in our lives, one which in retrospect, we would not trade?”
Thinking about the pandemic this way has helped me be a better doctor and mother. It has given me an opportunity to consider how I practice medicine and to become a better physician leader in the Emergency Department. It has also helped me look at my children’s challenges differently. In the six months that my kids have had to let go of usual activities, my 5-year old son has taught himself to read. And my daughter, is over 100 pages into writing a book with a good friend—most of which has been written in my backyard while sitting apart in a socially distanced way.
We also have a family friend, who when she learned that because of some complications due to COVID it would take her an extra year to graduate from college, decided to spend that year taking pre-med courses and apply to medical school.
Other people have found meaning in volunteering and advocacy—reaching out across socioeconomic and racial boundaries to help others, and themselves. These are just a few examples, but as each of you considers the last six months, I imagine that along with what you have lost, there are also things you have gained. And while I would never wish for a pandemic to come along and cause suffering, I am suggesting that we do not simply need to be its victims. We cannot choose that it is here—or even know what we might lose—but we can choose how we conduct ourselves in its wake, and how we let it transform us. Who can we be if we use the pandemic to get involved, move outside our comfort zones, and learn things we might not otherwise had the opportunity to learn?
I love the idea of the “Light on the Hill” ceremony. It is a lovely, and even little bit old-fashioned tradition that helps build community and mark the beginning of the year. Because of the way light can symbolize knowledge and truth, I think it is an especially fitting tradition for a university community. That USU is built on an actual hill makes it even better.
There is a New Testament passage that says “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Whatever your faith tradition—or even if you don’t have one—attending college in the middle of pandemic is an opportunity to pursue light and knowledge—and to join with other people doing the same thing. Together you could even light an entire hillside. Looking back someday, you may also see that you turned a time of great loss and challenge into the defining moment of your life.
Best wishes to all of you as you start the new academic year. Draw on each other, make new friends, challenge yourselves. Stay safe and be well.