Founders Day Speech 2011

October 6, 2011

‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’

by Giannina L. Garcés-Ambrossi ’02, M.D.

You are becoming your own glorious song of innocence and experience. You are making a harmony so unique and beautiful as to delight our creator, our parents, and our brothers and sisters on this earth.

You have begun this composition as the white lamb, about whom Blake wondered: “Little lamb, little lamb, who made thee? Doest thou know who made thee?”

Your melody will develop and color the song with a spark: “In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire?”

And in the end, your joyful music will be judged and measured: “When the stars threw down their spears, And water’d heaven with their tears, Did He smile His work to see? Did He who made the lamb make thee?”

And your song will be the most important creation you will ever see or know. It will be what you leave behind and what you send forward for all eternity.

How you compose it has already begun, but nowhere will be so defined, so enriched, as here in this college. And that is what we are here to talk about today.

Consider the chapter and verse, the chorus you will make — because our songs are short — they are so unimaginably short, so painfully quick, we hardly but begin to think of them — and they are over.

Consider these questions for your composition: how do the liberal arts develop your song of innocence? How do you refine this with your song of experience? What will steal your song? And how do we reconcile all this with our last common canto — death?

You may wonder why a Hopkins and Harvard-trained doctor employs this poetic imagery, when the motto of where I trained was “aequanimitas” — equanimity, always — and when ice should run through these surgical veins.

Mary Baldwin developed my love of literature and critical thinking; it built a foundation for precision and analysis with building blocks of imagination and creativity.

This liberal arts education produces not technical machines to imitate life, but thoughtful models to improve life.

This education produces someone who “looks ahead and not behind, who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, who cares about the welfare of (others) — their health, housing, schools, jobs, (and) civil rights.” With our education, we know better than to “enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” (John F. Kennedy)

… And I’ll admit, I agree with Oscar Wilde’s assessment! “The only way to atone for being occasionally a little over-dressed is by being always absolutely over-educated.”

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Our liberal arts education develops the ultimate song of innocence — idealism. The concept that there are ideals to inspire, to attain, to hope for. In spite of common drudgery, there is a dream to find and live.

Robert F. Kennedy said it best: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice- he sends out a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

This is what I want to live for; these are the words that make up my song. I dream that my song sends out a tiny ripple of hope. And from there it builds a current, so that not only my mother, my friends, my grandchildren can be proud of my existence, but the good that I may have done in this life will spread beyond, to those whom I may never know.

We must be the idealists, the dreamers, the hopeful. “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” (Gloria Steinem) We must be the idealists, the dreamers, the hopeful.

So how do you develop your aria? How do you temper idealism to avoid blind zealotry and vapid hedonism? Here enters the song of experience — that of thoughtfulness and action. This is the fulfillment of our idealism — the hard work of life.

Allow me to use myself as an example. As a child, I was brimming-over with idealism. I was obsessed with doing “the right thing.” I couldn’t tolerate others being rude or thoughtless — and, as my personal guide to good and wrong, I looked to my mother.

Her voice was my first impression of the just, the pure, the kind song of experience: she always made me take myself out of the situation, and consider why the OTHER person may be having a rough day, why this may be out of character for them. And she would ask me how I could help them. She taught me to look outside myself, to sympathize, and to be gentle with others. She taught me grace.

Truthfully, living in this way takes a certain amount of discipline and commitment — it requires you to step outside the immediacy of ME and RIGHT NOW, and requires you to think about the experiences you have, how to make the best of each great or terrible situation, how to play the hand you’ve been dealt, when to act, when to look the other way.

Therefore, we must wonder at every pace:

  1. Am I being challenged, am I doing my best even when my best isn’t required, isn’t recognized?
  2. Am I working for a common good, greater than myself and my own immediate vulgar instincts?
  3. Am I being kind, helping others either appreciate or exist in this beautiful life?
  4. And finally, am I being honest, am I making myself and those around me better?

In short — am I living up to this heartbreakingly true and terribly difficult motto of ours: “Non pro tempore sed aeternitate”?

Our idealism will be the song that inspires the hearts of those around us, and our hard daily action of hard work will be the experience that guides us — but both will be constantly threatened by the enemy, cynicism.

Beware of cynicism, which will masquerade as maturity and worldliness, which will masquerade as wisdom in order to rob you of a beautiful idealism. It will close your eyes and hearts to the beauty of the world, to the grace and joy of knowing and helping your fellow man. It will masquerade as a song of experience.

Cynicism will take many forms: it will say “not good enough” or “foolish.” It will ask you to wait for “the right time,” “the right mood.” It will deflect responsibility, blame others for our failure, and give us an excuse to give less, love less, learn less.

Winston Churchill noted: “We cannot escape our dangers by recoiling from them. We dare not pretend such dangers do not exist.”

Because if we do — this is how you begin to deny yourself your own life.

Seneca will introduce our final theme: “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

Death is our great equalizer — and there is only one way around it: through the good of our song.

And if we are not conscious of this every waking moment, if we are not struggling to save our song, and dream our dream, and live our love, then we are failing in our composition. You have to love and want and drink and eat and breathe and LIVE, every second of this life. You cannot let anything stop you — not your own wants or doubts, not the “next time” or “tomorrow” or “after” — these will steal your life.

I am here as a physician to tell you that Oscar Wilde was wrong when he said: “One can survive everything nowadays except death.”

By my very saying it, I have proven him wrong — for his mind is still with us through that quote, that very idea. It is true that money comes and goes, our hearts start and stop — but our ideas, the good songs for ourselves and others — live on, as our final barricade against death.

I want you to wake up 20 years from now and still feel this vitality, this energy, this excitement that your youth and your education has supplied. I want you to wake up in 20 years and feel ALIVE.

Be careful with the time in between, because if you don’t mind this song, you will slip, note by note, into a mindless, effortless slavery to the hollow indulgence around you, which will begin to unconsciously define you in a chilling comfort. Nothing will have meaning to you — unless you take this feeling now, remember it, and hungrily pursue it.

At this point, I’d like to offer you some free medical advice: protect your brain. Wear a helmet, don’t smoke, exercise regularly.

I say these items in a slightly laissez-faire way not because they are unimportant (in fact they may be the best pieces of medical advice you will ever get), but because the real threat to your life is not death.

The real threat to your life is not living it. The real threat is that you will wake up in 20 years and look around you — with all the petty annoyances, the slow build up of dust, the rusty fatigue of adulthood, and find you have changed — and you will wonder: “What happened to that girl who went to Mary Baldwin?”

As you develop your song of innocence and experience, use your liberal arts training to bring out the theme of idealism and thoughtfulness, kindness for yourself and for one another — push aside cynicism, and build the cantos as a barricade immemorial.

In closing, I might, as a physician, share the Fountain of Youth. Actually, Edith Wharton can tell you: “one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

You are becoming your own glorious song of innocence and experience — and this is what I wish for you as you construct your song.

To be happy in small ways, to be insatiable, to be unafraid.