- High School
As you all know, you are our fourth graduating class, and you bring the grand total of our graduates up to 44! That also means that this is the fourth time I have been honored to say a few words at graduation. A couple of years ago I spoke quite seriously about the future of work and how it would be different for today’s graduates than it has been in earlier days. Last year, of course, I spoke about 2020 as a watershed year of crisis and celebration, noting that it’s probably going to be the year that all of us accidentally write down whenever we are distracted for the rest of our lives. But this is 2021. In many ways it’s a much more complex year than 2020, because we’ve watched the world learn new ways of being and rise above the challenges, emerging a bit more ragged and tired but ultimately triumphant.
And yet, as I considered the year of 2021, I kept coming back to one of my favorite stories - the story about Doc Mellhorn and the Pearly Gates by Stephen Vincent Binet. Doc Mellhorn was a country doctor who lived in a small town in the US, and he spent his life treating mumps and colds and everyday ills, delivering babies and often delivering those babies’ babies decades later, attending to deaths and mending broken bones. One day when he was in his late 70s, he got a call to go see a patient - didn’t know exactly who - and found himself on a long long road (probably a new superhighway) with his doctor’s bag beside him. Eventually, after driving a long time, he saw the Pearly Gates rising in front of him, all the way to the sky, and he knew that he was supposed to check in with the clerk, who was expecting him. But when Doc Mellhorn said that he was on a call to see a patient, the clerk explained that there was no illness where they were, no births and obviously no deaths, so Doc Mellhorn could just rest, relax and maybe join a choir. The thing is, though, Doc Mellhorn liked to be useful and as the clerk kept trying to connect him to his parents or grandmother, the Doc got more and more nervous and finally he just took off down a back road going the other way until he got to the other place.
And there was lots to do in the other place. Folks had indigestion from eating brimstone, and of course there were many burns and falls, and he even set a tail for one of the guards. He learned a lot about emergency medicine. He treated one old Greek fellow named Prometheus for persistent stomach pain and liver failure. He set up a clinic and started training up some of the younger doctors. Just as he was about to start a dental clinic, he was visited by one of the authorities. The visitor was very polite, but explained that this approach really wouldn’t do, wasn’t quite in line with the culture and mission of the place and that made everyone’s work harder, and besides the Doc didn’t have a license to practice in that jurisdiction. He agreed to keep the clinic open (“What’s done is done”) and to continue the training for the new doctors, but Doc Mellhorn had to go.
So the Doc went back up the back road, and the whole long long way he felt alone and useless, and he counted every mistake he’d ever made. But after a while he found himself driving along in a nice neighborhood, and there was his mom, his dad, his grandmother, and even Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank told him that, sure, some folks like to just rest for eternity or join choirs, but that heaven is different for everyone and for many it meant staying busy. For example, even though there weren’t the everyday illnesses like the flu, there was plenty for a working doctor to do because many people arrived in pretty bad shape. He met his heroes - Benjamin Rush, and the Pasteurs, and even Aesclepius. And then he got to work.
So why does this year remind me of Doc Mellhorn? Because like him we have learned that even things we’ve always expected to be one way are sometimes different than we expect. When that happens, we find another path for a while, as we’ve had to do so often this year. We’ve learned that it’s always possible to make the best of even the worst situation. Build a clinic, learn new skills - you never know when they’ll come in handy. We’ve learned to make lasting changes, so that we know that we left things better than they were when we arrived… because, in fact, it is true that what’s done is done. We’ve found out that what's best for some people may not be optimal for others. Just like every person in Doc Mellhorn’s neighborhood created their own version of Heaven, each individual on Earth sculpts his own life -- there’s just nobody else who can do that. And we know that sometimes the longest and loneliest roads, full of self-doubt or boredom, lead to the best endings. And, finally, we know that, as Winston Churchill said, “out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.”
2021 has been a year that required patience and flexibility, a commitment to understanding that there is no new normal - there is only new. You all are going to be shaping the world, as graduates always are, but because of your resilience this year you will be alert and attuned to the positive possibilities of each challenge. This really is the year that has taught us that anything’s possible.
I welcome you all to adulthood. I can’t wait to see what you create.