Friday, September 28, 2012

Look Beyond Yourself

This year’s Honors Colloquium, focused on health care, began with a talk by the celebrated author Tracy Kidder.  Mr. Kidder spoke about his influential and moving book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, an examination of the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer.  Dr. Farmer has devoted himself to providing care and healing to some of our planet’s poorest people afflicted with HIV and tuberculosis.  During the question period following his talk, a member of the audience asked Mr. Kidder for his personal judgment of Dr. Farmer. His response was both brief and memorable: “I’m glad he lived here on earth.”
It is a judgment from those that know us that we should all strive to earn.  Many fail this simple test.  Unique combinations of factors can have a profound influence on each individual, and upon whether their time here on earth brings joy to those who know them. Every individual is different, but I would argue that we do have the common capacity to bring joy to those around us – or not.
My question here is: can college assist us in becoming the kind of person whose life would be judged as Mr. Kidder judged Dr. Farmer?  I think so.  There are probably many, many ways that learning, scholarship, serving, and being a part of a community, can develop in us the character and the determination to lead a life that brings joy to others.  But one thing, it seems to me, is a prerequisite.  We must be able to look beyond ourselves and place our efforts in a larger, outward-directed context.
Mr. Kidder spoke to this very requirement. In response to a question he stated that studying and learning – even subjects like organic chemistry – should be informed and motivated by our larger purpose.  He suggested that the goal of what we want to accomplish in our lifetime should be foremost.  Is it to heal people?  Then organic chemistry matters a lot. Is it to teach kids?  Then, in addition to the subject we aspire to teach, other subjects – like child psychology and human development – are important, too.  Seen from the summit of our larger purpose, every step upward to that goal is important, even indispensable.
That’s not to say that it is easy to maintain such a perspective. There may be times when a single step up is followed by a difficult slide down.  But every upward step matters. Keeping the goal in mind matters even more.  A university community, like that at the University of Rhode Island, can help refine, or define, our purpose in life and our goals for life.  In addition to courses, studios, and labs, participation in service learning, internships, volunteering, a living-learning community, student government or organizations, can all help identify the compelling interest or motive that can define a life.  That is why we offer all those things here, and why a rigorous learning environment and a strong, supportive community are both critical.
In the end it is up to each of us. We can choose to live a life with a purpose beyond our personal comfort, or not.  We can strive to be the kind of person that makes others glad they shared time with us, or not.  I believe that an important goal for the University of Rhode Island is to build an environment and a community that encourages all its members to create a life with a purpose beyond ourselves.  I hope you agree.