Dear faculty and staff, families and friends, and Ph.D. class of 2019,
I feel both honored and humbled to stand here today to be graduating from one of the finest universities in the world. Truth be told, I thought I would not be able to make it to the convocation day. I want to tell you two stories about that.
The first story is about loss and hope. In May 2016, I was out having lunch with a friend when my phone rang – it was my doctor. In a solemn voice, he told me that I need to go to his office immediately. When I rushed to the hospital, he told me that the lab results from a recent visit were not good. It was breast cancer.
I was petrified. I still remember sitting in the waiting room, crying uncontrollably. I asked myself: “Is this the end? I am only 29 years’ old. Am I going to die like this?” The surgeries and treatment started immediately following the diagnosis. I had two lumpectomies and month-long radiation treatment.
For the next five months, I had no clue how long I was going to stay alive. To make sure that cancer hadn’t spread, the hospital put me through numerous tests and imaging. The deep scars from the surgeries were only beginning to heal when the radiation tore apart my skin again with bruises and blisters. In many, many sleepless nights, lying in bed, tossing and turning in pain, I wandered through the memories of my life, desperately searching for some meanings to hold on to.
What I did not know at the time is that out of this despair would come the greatest gift of hope. Within the course of two weeks, many people came into my life and became my friends. They accompanied me to hospital visits and inspired me to see hope in these twirling storms. During my darkest time, this friendship became the source of my strength. The doctors and health care staff at Columbia worked closely with me to make sure that I received the first-rate treatment at the best hospitals in NYC. When I was struggling with the heavy weight of the cancer diagnosis, they helped me to obtain fast treatment and get psychological support.
Then one day, when the final oncological report of my tumor came back, the doctor gave me a long embrace and told me that cancer I had was a slow growing and highly treatable form of cancer, and after the radiation, I should consider myself cured.
This was my closest encounter with death, but what it taught me was what it means to be alive. Having now lived through this, I could talk to you with a bit more certainty than when life and death were purely intellectual ideas.
We all have experience with living, but for many of us, living feels like agony. Very few people are willing to admit it, but “living as agony” is a choice. I used to feel that way myself. I made that choice because I did not have the courage to confront the profound truth that being alive is an extraordinary gift. Within the course of several decades, for all of us, this gift is going to expire. No one has been able to escape it. Your time is limited, so don’t be trapped by the results of other people’s thinking, even if they are the greatest thinker, or scientist or artist ever lived in your respective field. Instead, trust your voice and tell your story, and use that to empower and uplift people around you. There is great value in that – and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
The second story I want to share with you is about fear and love. When I found out that I had cancer, my boyfriend at the time, who was about to propose, told me that he couldn’t overcome his fear and decided to not go forward with the proposal. “I am just being realistic.” He said. I quietly packed up my stuff and went back to my apartment. That was the end of our relationship.
Before I had cancer, I had rarely thought about the experience of fear, and I didn’t know how much it also controlled everybody’s life and thinking, mine included. Five months of cancer treatment. I survived. From there, I was able to make a new decision about life and I want to share this decision with you.
Fear is always going to be part of life, but we get to decide how much. We could spend our whole life imagining ghosts and worrying about the pathway towards the future. However, all the future would ever be is what is happening here, in the decisions we make at this moment. These decisions are based on either love or fear. Some of us decided to choose fear disguised as practicality. This fear limits us, focusing our attention on the misfortunes of the self, and blinding us from the greater love we received from others. When we choose to love, we are able to move out into the world and connect with others, where true strength and true power can be found. The world out there is starving for new ideas and new leadership. And you are only bounded by the limitlessness of your spirit – this is true with everybody.
My dear friends, I want to share with you these two stories from my life. It is my hope that they show us that life is not about chasing one’s own immortality through the next accomplishment. The more we try to preserve our own power, the more powerless we feel. The more we move personally into the lives of people around us, our students, colleagues, teachers, families, and friends, the more we see the limitlessness of what our communities are capable of. After graduation, we are going to go off and do beautiful things. When we walk through those doors, we have choices to make — loss or hope; fear or love. Let’s choose hope and love, and always know that our playful hearts would guide us.