“Monday Musings” for Monday June 2, 2014
Volume IV, No.21/178
(Editor’s Note: This is the text of the commencement address given at the Saint David’s Episcopal High School on May 31, 2014
The Moral Imperative of “I” Ship
By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*
Mr. Chairman, members of the Board of trustees, Mr. Headmaster, honored guests, fellow students, Ladies and Gentlemen:
So you graduated from high school. Congratulations! You have been through a lot of graduations. You graduated from pre-kindergarten. You graduated from kindergarten, then from elementary school, middle school,and now from high school. But I submit that you have graduated more times than you know. You and I were born as helpless babies who could not survive without the nurturing, care and love of our parents, especially our mothers. When a newborn is hungry (for the science majors, that is driven by low blood sugar, below 70 mg percent) the baby screams. “Mama is coming,” and she brings the bottle or the breast. This goes on day and night until something miraculous–and I choose the word miraculous advisedly—it miraculously happens around age week to week and week and half. Let me explain this miracle: when the baby gets hungry and screams and while mother is saying “Mama is coming,” the baby equates the voice of the mother to anticipated gratification and stops screaming momentarily. But if Mama falls asleep, of course the baby resumes screaming. At the ripe old age of 10 days, the anlage or the infrastructure of ego functions are laid. Yes, we all graduated from this stage of extreme narcissism and self- centeredness at the age of 10 days. It is a miracle.
Then you graduated from infancy, learning to sit, to stand, to crawl, to walk, to run, and to separate and individuate, running away from mama only to return and hide behind her skirt. Games like peak-a-boo reinforce this phase. Then you graduated from childhood. You later graduated from latency phase of growth and development, age seven to twelve, and entered adolescence. You went through adolescence and negotiated the vicissitudes of teen years and graduated into adulthood. And now with the support and continuous love and sacrifice of your parents you are graduating from high school as well- balanced, educated, mature person.
The purpose of life is to turn that narcissistic bundle, the newborn baby, into the altruistic and loving adults you all are. Inn other words turning a “me” to a grown mature “I” . Remember when Moses asked Yahweh at Mount Saini, when the Ten Commandments were passed on to hi, Moses asked Yahweh, who shall I say you are, And the answer was “I Am, Am.” Let us celebrate graduating from a “me” to an “I” Monotheistic religion as far back as Zoroastrianism praised Ahura Mazda for glorification of “I”. Judaism reflected in the Pentateuch, the five books of the Bible, as well as in the Gospel of Matthew, which just like Pentateuch has five parts spoke of dwelling in the nostalgic temple of transcendence by becoming an “I”. The Holy Quran of Islam defines man as an “I”:Va Laghad Karramna Bani Adam,,,,VA Hamalnohom men barr-e-ValBahr” (we created Adam as an ‘I’ with dominion on land and sea) And in our new testament the glory of being an “I” is celebrated and repeated in gospel of John by the Lord many times:
I am the bread of life
I am the light of the world…
I am the door…
I am the good shepherd…
I am the resurrection of the life…
I am the wine…
I am the truth…
I am the life…
I am the true vine…
The joy of graduation is knowing that your parents and teachers have helped your successful passage from a helpless “me” to an able and independent “I”… Let’s briefly examine the attributes of a well-balanced, altruistic and loving adult “I”. This “I” person for the most part of waking hours is aware that he or she is a child of God. Not the child of a mayor, the child of a governor, the child of a king, the child of a president, a Shah, an emperor, or an Ayatollah, we are children of God. Do you know of a loftier position in all creation? Being aware of this gift given to us at birth is the essence of Pauline theology of Grace and Christian love.
This “I” person for the most part of waking hours has good feelings, happy feelings, and as result has good thoughts anddoes good things. Doing good things is vastly different from being a do-gooder. Doing a good deed is altruistic. Being a do-gooder may be narcissistic and self- serving.
This “I” person is a joyful person. The etymology of the word joy is the Sanskrit word (and Farsi) JOOYE, meaning a running brook. Let me explain: a camel driver crossing the desert in 100 degrees in the shade for several days reaches an oasis with trees, grass and a running brook of clear cool water. He waters his camels, then takes a fistful of this cold and refreshing water and drinks it and splashes some on his face. The feelings at that moment generated by JOOYE, the running brook, is where JOY comes from. Joy, like a running brook, is constant. It is refreshing. It is life giving… this person is not just happy, but JOYFUL. Happiness is temporary, evanescent, and artificial, while joy is constant, refreshing and life giving… be joyful.
This “I” person makes a pledge, a resolve to be a growing person. What is growth? To me, growth consists of three parts: to know more today than I did yesterday, to do fewer bad things today than I did yesterday, and to love more today than I did yesterday. Knowing more every day is a demanding and disciplined task. At my age, just had my birthday yesterday, well north of 70, every night I go to bed, I take an inventory of what I know. I mean sheer knowledge. If I have NOT learned more today than I did yesterday, I get out of the bed and go read my medical, science and humanities journals. You and I must be aware of the responsibility of enriching our cognitive reservoir. Yes, we must know more today than we did yesterday. The sheer act of learning and internalizing knowledge is pure joy..
Second part of growth is to realize that we all do bad things. Indeed good people do bad things. We must take an inventory that we did fewer bad things today than yesterday. This is what Saint Paul theology calls power of redemption. And to be a growing person,
The third part of this triad is that we must be more loving today than we were yesterday. Now, what is love? We love our Aunt Molly, Cousin Bert; we love apple pie and the beach, and BBQ. Love is one of the most confusing words in English lexicon. English language, young, accessible and dynamic as it is, is very short on affective words, feeling words, words that describe feelings. There are 400 Arabic words whose equivalent in English is one word “love”. It is frustrating to use the same four letter word for the rich reservoir of feelings we experience in our lives. So let me resort to Greek.
There are three words for love: Eros, the love involving sex, reproduction and carnal fusing, Philia, the love we have for our relatives, brothers, cousins, and extended family. But the love I want to focus upon is the third Greek word, Agape, which is the love God has for all of us, and we must learn to have it for all humanity. Let’s focus on Agape, the kind of love that God has for us. It has three parts: a loving person is not abusive to one’s self, a loving person does not use and abuse alcohol, does not smoke, does not use drugs, and does not get fat. The epidemic of obesity in America causes diabetes, cardiovascular disease, back pain, bringing a health care bill approaching 20% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Obesity is a very serious form of self- abuse which is not loving. Obesity is a moral issue. Second leg of agape is not to be abusive to one’s fellow man, regardless of what you do for a living. As a physician, don’t abuse your patients by making them wait for you. For garbage collectors, don’t strew the stuff all over the street, be neat, do not abuse others- including the US government by cheating on taxes. And lastly, the third leg, do not let anyone else abuse you. Learn to say “NO” and mean it. Do not let friends talk you into doing abusive things. Love, like a tripod, has to have all three legs to stand up.
Now I want to introduce you to three role models who have shown us how to be loving and lovable. These three brilliant stars of the intellectual constellation are Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Saint Augustine was a pagan. He was a brilliant student throughout his entire life, but as he grew up he did a lot of bad things, like stealing from his parents to buy toys and literally purchase acceptance and friendship of his peers, that is to say, to be popular. He used to steal apples from his neighbor’s yard, not because he was hungry, but because it was fun to do. He lied to his mother repeatedly. As he grew up, he sired an illegitimate son by a concubine. He converted into Christianity at age 31 and after a couple of years became the Bishop of the city of Hippo. All this is recorded in his 13 book“Confessions”. The first nine books are autobiographical and the last four exegetical, an analysis of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Augustine wrote more than five million words.
The second role model is the Jewish physician, Rabbi, philosopher and theologian, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, Rambam, (1135-1204). He, too, wrote more than five million words. And the third person is the Arab economist, theologian and music advocate, Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406). Surprisingly, he, too, wrote more than five million words. Islam prohibited music and the arts for fear of inviting and spreading lust in society. Ibn Khaldoun was very much interested in bringing music back to Islam. He knew as an exception singing the passages of the Holy Quran (Bible of the Muslims) called Talavat is acceptable. So he petitioned the ruling Caliph to start a competition singing the text of Quran, just like our Oscars. The competition began in 1352 when he was 20 and continues to this day. All Muslim nations send delegations of singers to these annual competitions. This has played in war, in peace, in famine and in plenty, since 1352. As an aside, another piece of music that has continuously played since its opening night, Christmas Eve 1741, is Handel’s Messiah. On the opening night King George II was in the audience. When the chorale sang the Alleluia Chorus, the king was so moved that he stood up giving an ovation. This is why to this day we, too, stand up when Alleluia Chorus is sung. Like Talavat,Messiah has played continuously in war and peace, in famine and plenty since its debut in 1741.
So let’s see what these gifted people, the residents of the Pantheon of superior intellect, spirituality and faith tell us. These three people wrote more than 16 million words in their life time. I do not pretend that I have read every word of what they have written, but I have read a good bit of their writings. To give you a summary in the form of a gift that I hope you take home with you, repeat it in your mind, and if you would, like a favorite song, hum it until it becomes a part of you.
Here is what they said. Here is what these three most accomplished and brilliant children of God said: the pathway to salvation and grace is “to know what is good inside of you, namely brain, this wondrous two and half pounds mass of billions of neurons, that is nerve cells, and trillions of synapses where these neurons chemically inter-connect, love, compassion, loyalty, faith, intellect and self-awareness; and what is good outside of you, namely friends, connectedness, family, flowers, dance, poetry, music and beauty of nature, and to be thankful for them ‘by giving something back.’ This is the beginning of altruism, philanthropy LOVE OF MANKIND, and joy. Remember, it all started when you were only 10 days old…
Let me repeat and pass onto you the gift these three people have given to us so that their gift may become an integral part of our mentation, cognition, perception and lives: To know what is good inside of you, namely brain and intellect, love, compassion, loyalty, faith, intellect and self-awareness; and what is good outside of you, namely friends, connectedness, family, flowers, dance, poetry, music and beauty of nature, and be thankful for them by giving something back…”
Yes, you and I are privileged to be children of not a mayor, not a king, not a governor, not a President, not a Shah or Ayatollah…You and I are children of God- all seven billion of us occupy that lofty status.
Yes, we have many good things inside of us, many good things outside of us. And we will be constantly aware of them and be thankful for them by giving something back…
And now I close by recalling a passage from one of the most beloved poets of the 20th century, Khaleel Gibran: “Empty and dark shall I raise my lantern, and the Guardian of the night shall fill it with oil, and He shall light it also…” May your lanterns be always full, and may they be lighted also.
God Bless America.
*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.