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Commencement Address

Abraham Verghese, M.D., MACP, Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor and Vice Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University

President Rougeau, my fellow honoree Rev. Boroughs, distinguished faculty, guests, families, and most of all, you, the class of 2022!

I am truly humbled to receive this honorary degree from the College of the Holy Cross. And what a privilege to get to speak to you!

I am, as you heard, a physician and writer. At first blush, this might seem a strange pairing of professions, but if you think about it, being a doctor and being a writer have one common ingredient: story. When physicians see a new patient, we take a history — the word “history” has “story” embedded in it.

When I’m the attending physician on the wards, I rarely feel that I have some special knowledge beyond that of my brilliant residents and interns at Stanford that sheds new light on the patient’s condition. On the occasions when I make a difference, it is usually because I hear something different in the patient’s story, or else the patient’s story has a resonance with one particular tale in the rich compendium of histories I have heard and cataloged in memory over 40 years of practicing medicine. Or perhaps I made more of one element of the patient’s narrative; I dug deeper and found out it was a different story altogether. The importance of this kind of skill – of “story skill” – for physicians is because all narratives have beginnings and arcs and endings, and if you have the proficiency to recognize the story you are being told, you know something about its course, even if the patient does not. In other words, you have the keys to a diagnosis.

So, I propose to tell you a story. It’s about a boy raised by a single mother and growing up in somewhat strained circumstances in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city abutting Boston. He grew up in the shadow of another great university in Cambridge, where his grandmother worked in janitorial services. He went to a Catholic high school and had excellent grades. He might well have gone to the renowned university in whose shadow he lived, but he never considered it ­– ironical, given that it was literally on his horizon. Instead, he did what most of his college-bound classmates did; he applied to the great traditional Catholic universities: Notre Dame, Villanova, Boston College, Georgetown … and was accepted everywhere. But the moment he visited Holy Cross’ beautiful campus, he wanted to come here.

Picture him, if you would, 17 years old, carrying two suitcases, dropped off by his mother, who said goodbye and didn’t linger. This was pre-helicopter parents, pre-Tiger-Mom, a different era. He recalls being welcomed by the seniors, who had a keg of beer going behind the dorm. And then, to his great dismay, the president of the College, Fr. John Brooks, showed up. You can’t blame the young man for thinking he was in big, big trouble, and that this was an inauspicious start to his college days. However, far from chastising any of the students, Fr. Brooks joined them. Again, this was a different era, and the drinking age was quite different.

Forty years later, that same boy remembers his time here as one of the happiest periods of his young life: small classes, wonderful professors, the seminar system of instruction that challenged him … and yet he had great fun. He knew he was going into medicine even though he chose to be an English major for the joy of it.

Then, in his final year of college, tragedy struck. His mother, who had worked selflessly to support him in college, passed away of sudden cardiac death, leaving him and his younger sister essentially orphans. He knew this meant he must drop out of college and work to support his sister. But at his mother’s funeral, he was shocked to see carloads of his classmates and professors – carloadsarrive for the service. And Holy Cross simply would not let him drop out; the Jesuit chaplains, his professors and his classmates lifted him up and made it possible for him to continue, and even to go onto medical school.

How do I know this story? Because that boy is my boss; he’s the chair of the Department of Medicine at Stanford and is in the office next to mine. He’s my friend and his name is Bob Harrington. He is probably the one of the world’s most distinguished cardiologists at this time, a former president of the American Heart Association and a researcher whose discoveries have influenced the medications many of us in this audience are taking. He oversees nearly 700 faculty, over 800 staff, and $144 million in research dollars . . . However, if you met him in the streets, you wouldn’t know any of this; you’d just meet Bob, a modest guy who is fanatic about the Red Sox and drives a hideous little red Volvo, a special edition decked out in Red Sox colors to commemorate the 2007 championship.

I know that 40 years later, he exchanges daily texts with a group of eight friends that he made here on campus and to whom he has stayed close from that time. He has daily contact with these eight special college friends; they are involved in each others’ lives, sharing their tragedies and celebrating their successes.

Another thing I greatly admire about Bob: as phenomenally busy as he is, every night before he goes to bed, he reads. He always has a book, typically fiction, going. I see him all the time, but I also have a formal monthly 1-on-1 meeting with him in my role as vice chair of education, but I will tell you a secret: We spend most of the hour talking books. I can’t help thinking this is a key to what he has accomplished.

Each year at Christmas, Bob gives a book to the leadership group. One year it was “Fraternity” by Diane Brady. The book, as you know, is about how shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Rev. John Brooks, who at that point was not yet president of Holy Cross, personally recruited and mentored 20 talented African American students. Many of them went on to distinguished careers; that list includes Edward Jones ’72, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer; Theodore Wells ’72, who became the country’s top defense attorney; Eddie Jenkins ’72, who would play for the Dolphins before becoming a lawyer and others.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, why do I bring Bob Harrington up to you? Because Bob attributes his success to this institution, to the friends he made here and the mentors he had here. And especially to the Jesuit motto:

Men and women serving others.

Over the years, I have heard him repeat that phrase many times; it captures who he is and, I suspect, who all of you are destined to be, in your own ways.

So, class of 2022, given that you have grown on this campus with this motto, beginning your college life within the framework of the Montserrat seminar – wow, what an experience that must have been! I’m envious. You have a magnificent foundation already.

I want to talk to you about your story! You are still in Act 1 of four or five acts of your tale, given modern medicine and modern longevity. You will encounter conflict, crisis, and danger along the way, and will triumph. You will need to be well armed; you will need wisdom and courage if you are to slay the dragon, rescue the damsel or the hunk imprisoned in the tower, and find ultimate success. Importantly, how will you define success in your story? And how do you get all the tools to live your story successfully?

What you don’t need me to tell you is how it ultimately ends. Life, alas, is a terminal condition. But you know, our being mortal isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The poet Wallace Stevens in that lovely poem, “Sunday Morning,” said, “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her alone shall come fulfillment to our dreams and our desires.”

In other words, only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers. If roses did not wither and die, they would be weeds.

The flip side to that, as Orson Welles said, is that “constraint begets creativity.” He was talking about movies, but it applies to our finite lives—the constraint of time, the constraint of being mortal, propels us to be creative, to want our story, our lives, to be meaningful, more so than if we were immortal.

To navigate your own story in the best way you can, you must become a story expert, seasoned in all the ways of the world. But how do you get that knowledge and wisdom?

I believe you do it through the magic of reading, something you have already discovered here. But I ask you to not stop. You’ve got your required readings out of the way. There is no midterm, no final, no essay to write, so you can begin to read entirely for pleasure, for yourself, to better understand and see your own story. Mark Twain said a person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read. And in our culture, increasingly even the well-educated read less—Twitter and doomscrolling on the phone don’t really fill the gap of reading.

And I want to make a special plea to you to read fiction. Read fiction.Why? Because, as the writer Dorothy Allison said, “fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives.”

I’ll remind you … it was not a president or an army that ended slavery in America. One book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” captured the public’s imagination, and suddenly for a vast majority of the public, slavery was no longer palatable. Or think of the book “The Citadel” by A.J. Cronin, describing a physician in a small mining town, a fictional story set in the UK, but it so captured the public’s imagination, filled them with outrage at medical conditions for both doctors and patients, that it caused the creation of the National Health Service.

The great writer John Fowles, who wrote “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” which went on to become a wonderful movie with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons . . . well, John Fowles used to say that if you don’t have that practice of taking the little signals we call words on the page and making a mental movie with them in your head, if you don’t have that practice, a vital creative part of your brain begins to atrophy. I love movies, Netflix, Amazon Prime and TikTok just as much as many of you do, but I recognize there is something passive, something missing to that kind of story-viewing and story-watching.

You see, the unique thing about reading fiction, the joy of it, is that you are in a collaborative venture with the writer. The writer provides the words; you, the reader, provide your imagination, and somewhere in middle space this wonderful mental movie of your own creation begins to take shape. It’s uniquely yours! Every reader who reads David Copperfield or Harry Potter makes their own mental movie of what the characters are going to look like, which is why you’re often disappointed to go to the theater and see the movie version of the book you loved ruined, because they cast Antonio Banderas in the role of a beloved character you visualized quite differently in your mental movie.

Fiction resonates when it rings true with what you know about life, when it resonates with what you know or suspect about people. Stories are instructions for living; they are an operating manual. My friend Arnold Weinstein, a renowned professor at Brown University, and also known worldwide by his lectures on the Teaching Company’s Great Courses series, has a new book, a memoir, really, of his long career, called “The Lives of Literature.” He opens with the words: “We go to literature because it houses human lives.”

We go to literature because it houses human lives.

Characters in famous novels, be it Pip in “Great Expectations,” Quequeg in “Moby Dick”or Dr. Urbino in “Love in the Time of Cholera” – these are real people for us. We know them better than we know actual people. Weinstein says we enter a bookstore and we think, “So many books, not enough time.” But, as he points out, it’s actually the other way around: Books give us time.

Just think of the experience of your favorite novel, recall the experience of entering into the fictional landscape of a novel like “Love in the Time of Cholera” and living through the lifespans of its major characters … births and marriages and deaths . . . and yet when you put down the book you realize it’s just Tuesday? That’s what he means by “books buy you time.” Professor Weinstein talks about a friend who devoted her life to Shakespeare and was asked how much she knew about Shakespeare, and she said “not as much as he knows about me.” And that’s really the reason why we read: because books interrogate us. They inform us about where we are in the grand arc of story. They give us ammunition, they help us know ourselves, and recognize the people in our lives who matter.

I want to close by asking: How will you define success in your personal story? Clearly today, this moment is a wonderful success. A tremendous achievement! But you have many days to come. My advice to you would be: Don’t set the bar too high. Don’t live your life waiting for the one magical moment when you have particular letters behind your name or have this much in the bank …You and I know too many people — often successful, famous, accomplished people — whose success was not enough to keep them joyful. I would urge you to define success simply such that on a daily basis you experience joy. Here is my definition, or at least the one I aspire to: Every day that you get to see and admire the boundless beauty nature offers, every day you interact with the people you love, every day you give something back to others, is a good day, a success.

I’m inspired by the quote from the monk and writer, David Steindl-Rast, who says, “Joy is the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”

Graduates, your story goes on. Today is a high point. I wish for all of you many, many days to wake up, to see a new sunrise, to live, and to find joy that is not dependent on what happens. I wish for you, the class of 2022, many days to fulfill and find joy in the mission, in the memorable words that are the underpinning of this institution: men and women serving others.

God bless and Godspeed as you live out your story.