Bending Toward Justice: An Address to Class of 2018

This year, at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, I gave honor’s day remarks to the graduating class of students on their way to becoming doctors.

Any time the label “role model” is bantered about, I am more than humbled. As a professor of psychiatry and Associate Dean at the school, my selection was due to my supposed humanism in medicine.

While shifting through my many thoughts, looking for ways to bring a relevant message to bear on today’s uncertain world; yet again, another remark from President Trump appeared before me; this one dehumanizing immigrants with the word “animals.” It eventually landed me onto this simple message: on some level, every human being deserves your respect.

I offered the soon-to-be physicians a story.

A number of years ago I interviewed a middle age man for a State Disability determination as part of my 18-year Saturday job as a psychiatric consultant.

Initially, he presented as guarded, sullen, and abrasive. He looked much older than his stated age of 45. It appeared that life had gotten the best of him and he possessed the arresting scars and numerous tattoos to prove it. His early teenage years consisted of gang affiliations, violence, and substance abuse, and he’d served 20 years in prison for second degree murder.

Sitting before me, he was seeking disability after losing his entire right arm and severely injuring his legs in a train accident. Several months before, it turned out, while intoxicated, he somehow got stuck outside of a closing door of a Chicago Transit Authority train and was dragged to the next stop, causing massive injuries.

My job is to provide medical and psychiatric information to the medical reviewers when no information or inadequate medical documentation exists. I don’t say yes or no for disability status — that’s not my job. I never know what the State ultimately decides. Despite my years of chronicling serious impairments, few people receive state assistance on first try. Maybe this is surprising to many who see this country as a welfare state.

On a whim, as I was finishing the interview, I asked him about any other accidents he may have experienced in the past. There was long pause.

He then began to describe a scene in which when he was seven and his brother nine, the two of them were out late, way past midnight on a school night, playing on active train tracks on Chicago’s South side.

While they were dodging trains, one came more swiftly and unexpectedly. This man, then just a boy, was holding his brother’s hand when the train struck and when the train passed, he was left holding only the severed arm of his brother.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” a little boy’s voice came out of this fearsome-looking man.

Holding his brother’s severed arm, he described that he remembered saying: “Oh, we are in trouble” The man paused again, then started crying uncontrollably — and so did I.

This man was deeply flawed — as we all are — but he is not an animal, despite what conservative pundits might say. No contextualization here can hide the racist narrative thread Trump has been fueling the past two years. An obfuscating pardon of Jack Johnson, after 105 years, is not going to redeem Trump.

Every human being expresses some essence of love, some remnant of truth. The enduring respect I have for people has been garnered through thousands of patient interactions, and a myriad of student, colleague, and co-worker experiences.

One of the foundational missions of my career has been to help students respect differences in others. I’ve strived to model that notion of respect for people in all my professional interactions.

Maintaining respect for people is not always easy. Despite our best intentions, people can be annoying, off-putting, and downright foreign to our sacred viewpoints.

I know that not all of my students or their parents share my political views. I try to neuter my own personal opinions not germane to my professional role, yet it seeps through. Recently in reaction to yet another outrage, I railed “I hate Trump!”  But I stopped myself, for even though I don’t agree with everything he says or does, I have to swallow my own medicine and try to see some good in a man I despise.

I remind myself daily of my own imperfect nature. It helps mitigate my high expectations for people whom I disagree with. Even begrudging respect assists my efforts to listen to ideas antithetical to my own.

I reminded my students of ways to respect people daily in their professional roles:

Acknowledge people’s presence, so not to render them invisible.

Let them know they are valued and appreciated.

Try not to easily judge but give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Treat people equally, from housekeeping to the CEO.

Be interested in people’s hopes and dreams.

Smile and laugh with people as often as you can.

See the good in people, even when it’s difficult, for you’ll never know their backstory, unless, of course, you ask. To that end, be curious. Take genuine interest in people.

I told my students that day that I appreciated their unique journeys and life stories, and acknowledged that we, as faculty, threw a lot at them, but they not only survived, but flourished. Because they did.

I closed my remarks with this: when we were at our best, as educators, we saw the best in them, and now it’s their turn to go out and return this favor to others. Respect, see the good in others, open your hearts — heal this world, and do so in ways that transcend the clinical and speak to the humanity in us all.

Naysayers, no doubt, may dismiss such a hopeful message in a time when cynicism rules the day and anger is performative online, but I am reminded of the MLK quote: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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