Non sibi.

Blue Mountains, Australia

Why do I love this picture? Well, for one, it’s green. But it makes me happy in that inexplicable way that post-exam euphoria or listening to this or this also makes me happy. But mostly, it also reminds me that in standing tall, as I always hope I am, I am still (and always hope to be) looking up at something much bigger than myself. No four page response paper is needed to explain that.

Two days ago marked my last lecture for SW25 (for all those not familiar with Harvard Speak–that’s Societies of the World 25, Case Studies in Global Health) taught by Drs. Paul Farmer, Arthur Kleinman, Anne Becker, and Salmaan Keshavjee.

The class started as it had every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the past semester, but it is the way in which it ended–as with so many things–that I will remember most.

Non sibi. “Not yourself.”

Professor Kleinman asked us to think about this motto, one as humble as its brevity implies.

And it’s message, simple: The self acquires its resilience and strength through others. Thus, we would do well to help those around us.

“I’m 71 years old and I don’t need to teach a course like this. But why do I?” Professor Kleinman asked us.

“Because I believe it’s the most important thing that I do.”

And it was clear that he meant it.

It is moments like these that you replay in your mind all those days when you slipped into the back of the lecture hall because you missed a shuttle to class or woke up late or didn’t get to the reading because you were worried about an organic chemistry exam. It is times like these that you feel incredibly grateful for your professors who get up on the stage of their classroom and perform every day while you sit comfortably in your seat.

Twice this week I have had professors explain that though they may have a great deal of freedom with their job requirements or have more choice now that they are older, they choose to teach even when it is by no means something they must do–because, it is something they want to do.
Thinking about this and Professor Kleinman’s message, I began to think about my own path to a career in the medical profession one day.
Here, too, Professor Kleinman had an anecdote from his days of residency and an example of what not to do.

When you are a medical resident, he explained, it is unfortunate but true that you primarily spend time with other residents, and not with patients. It often becomes a time when you also teach the the medical students who are still rising in the ranks below you. And along with that responsibility, you inadvertently teach them the wrong thing–because, busy as you are, you end up conveying shortcuts instead of values. In your haste, you have affected the way those who will soon be in your place will see the medical profession as well.

We know that medical residents are and must be survivors, because there is no denying that the road to becoming a doctor is a long one. Professor Kleinman explained how he and his colleagues used to call the “preclinical and clinical years” the “precynical and the cynical years.” Understandably, it can be easy to feel demoralized when you are sleep deprived and inundated by cases that you are hard pressed to find a solution to. But that doesn’t justify trading savings in time, for investments in value.

To this odd conglomeration of Professor Kleinman’s words of wisdom, I will add an additional piece of advice regarding the what the Professor would call the “art of living”:

to the extent that you help others, you will do amazing things for yourself.

Feeling that we’re involved in this world in a way that allows us to flourish–and not just to exist–is very well served by engaging with others and being there for them.

And further still, you must remain critical of that world. You need to find a way to be critically minded as well as morally committed.

Ultimately, struggling does something marvelous for the world, explained Professor Kleinman, because when we struggle, we do something for ourselves as well.

And so, amidst the finals and papers and deadlines that so many of us are facing these couple weeks, I hope you will take a minute to step back and remember this simple fact–and goodness, is it a liberating one. When we struggle, we do something for the world around us and for ourselves in a way that may not even be apparent to us quite yet. But just know that we do something more than simply require our professor to take out his red pen and correct our work or make sure that we are using the money spent on our college educations to its utmost. Our struggles do for us as we do for them.

And there was one last message that Professor Kleinman imparted on us before we walked out of SW25 lecture for the last time and into reading week here on campus and towards the rest of our lives as students of the world.

To be cynical is the worst thing that can possibly happen to any of us—it makes us feel helpless and hopeless. So, as much as we can, we must remember to keep up the struggle, and all the while hold our half full glass with an unrelenting grip. 

Good luck with finals, everyone!

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