A letter to the graduating class of 2020
What extraordinary times are these! Nobody had the 2020 vision required to see what was coming this year. Who can doubt that these are challenging times, but with challenge comes the prospect for growth and opportunity. If we want to learn something of lasting value from adversity then must turn towards it rather than away from it. This produces a kind of alchemy by turning lead into gold. 2020 has brought a few obvious but commonly ignored truths into sharp focus.
First, we tend to live under the assumption that the future is known and predictable. Now we are reminded that we live in uncertain times – of that we can be certain.
Second, we tend to live under the assumption that we have more control than we do. Then, when confronted with the fact that many things are outside of our control, we become anxious to get back in control. Yes, we can control some things, but when bigger things come along we are reminded that we have very little control over nature. It is like we are floating in a large ocean, but although we don’t control the wind and the waves, we can learn to sail.
Third, we mostly live under the assumption that the circumstances of our lives, and life itself, are more permanent than they are, then we discover they are incredibly fragile. We form ideas about what we think our future is going to be and assume that life will go according to our plans, but reality has a nasty habit of gate crashing our dreams. Life and the world don’t necessarily march to the beat of our drum.
Fourth, we tend to think that in times of adversity we are far better off by looking after ourselves. Our circle of care and consideration tends to shrink to us as an individual or, at best, a few people in our closest circle. But we see every day how this mentality leads to conflict and misery. It harms others but sooner or later it harms ourselves, not just physically but also emotionally and morally.
So, as you leave medical school I will provide my last little bit of advice to bookend what I did on your first day of medical school. What lessons can mindfulness teach us in these extraordinary times? Learn to feel comfortable with uncertainty – it’s a fact of life. When confronting circumstances outside your control, save yourself the anxiety and grief of trying to control them. Learn not to be controlled by circumstances by accepting and working with them. Acknowledge that success, pleasure and good fortune are transitory, as are failure, discomfort and misfortune. Life, and all that comes with it, are fragile so do your best not to take it for granted. The truth is we have no idea what the future is. In as much as you are able, learn to flow with life in the moment. It tends to get a lot more interesting if you do because life is always presenting signposts that will help you to navigate your way. Those who are mindlessly marching to some preconceived idea of how life should unfold cannot see the signposts and arrive one day far from where they intended. We must be awake to the moment, in touch with ourselves and our calling in life. Life is then full of surprises and opportunities that one would not have otherwise seen and could never have predicted. Trust it. It is the only way to wind up exactly where you need to be. Being awake and aware also means expanding our circle of care and consideration as wide as it can be. Those truly great statespeople of times past, like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, lived through enormous adversity but rose above it to be beacons for justice and freedom for all humanity.
As Monash University starts to disappear into the rear-vision mirror of your life, good luck to you all. By all means, remember your past and look toward the future, but be awake to the present as you walk your journey. I hope that your time at Monash University has not only laid the foundations for a wonderful medical career, whatever path it takes, but has also helped you to grow wiser and more compassionate as human beings.