JHU President Ronald J. Daniels addresses the Class of 2019

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Commencement 2019

Daniels: 'The scars you carry need not diminish you'

Video and full text of President Daniels' remarks at JHU's 2019 Commencement ceremony

Remarks as prepared for Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels for delivery at the universitywide Commencement ceremony on May 23, 2019.

To our honorary degree recipients, alumni, and trustees, to our faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends; and most especially to our graduates, welcome to the Johns Hopkins University commencement for the great Class of 2019!

You have made it! You have evolved from your first timid steps around the Johns Hopkins seal to the people you are today. You are wiser. Bolder. More discerning.

You now know that the harder you pound your keyboard, the harder you are working. We know this to be true.

During your time here, you developed not only specialized skills, but also keen insight and exceptional powers of observation. I know that not one of you missed the errant Starbucks cup in the House of Winterfell.

Now, graduates, you are about to say to Johns Hopkins, "Thank u, next."

And we're good with that. We get it. It's time for you to move on, having gotten all you could have from this relationship.

But before it's all over, I have the privilege of speaking with you one last time.

It turns out the culmination of your Hopkins careers coincide with a milestone of my own: I have now been at Hopkins for a full 10 years. Like you, my time here has been marked by more poignant experiences than I can count, both personally and professionally.

But there is one in particular that has stayed with me. A time when the personal and the professional collided in a way that was, to put it mildly, momentous.

It happened in the fall of 2009—my own "freshman year" at Hopkins. Like a typical first-year, I was busy learning my way around and getting to know the people whose remarkable achievements fuel this amazing place that is Hopkins.

As part of my orientation, I had the opportunity to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of operating rooms at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I donned scrubs and entered the OR of a master surgeon (one of Hopkins' legendary surgeons) named John Cameron, who was performing a procedure called the Whipple on a patient with a deadly cancer.

Now, the Whipple is a notoriously long, technically demanding, and extremely risky surgery. John Cameron devoted his career to perfecting it. It was because of his singular efforts that the procedure's mortality rate at major teaching hospitals decreased from over 25% when he started operating to just 2%. He did that in a period of decades. And at Johns Hopkins, the mortality rate is now less than 1%.

Little did I know then that I would soon be on the receiving end of that very surgery.

You see, several weeks after my visit to his operating room, I began to lose weight. At first, I tried to write it off as the result of skipping meals to keep pace with a new job, but the continued weight loss soon became too much to ignore. So I went to see the folks at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

They confirmed my worst fears, as they delivered the news: Most likely, you've got stage 4 pancreatic cancer, but we won't know for sure until we perform the Whipple, in a month's time.

As my wife Joanne and I left the meeting with the doctors, she asked me, "How you doing? You OK?" I replied, "Yes, all things considered, but I'm concerned that because of my position at the university the docs were coddling me, they were holding something back." Joanne paused, and said, with her trademark poise and impeccably dry wit: "You know there's not a stage 5, right?"

JHU President Ronald J. Daniels addresses the Class of 2019

Image caption: Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels addresses the Class of 2019

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Fast forward 10 years. As you can tell, I am one of the truly lucky ones. I more than survived my Whipple procedure. And while my condition was not to be taken lightly, what I had was not pancreatic cancer.

But the prognosis, the wait, the whole experience … was overwhelming, and life-altering.

And that's what I want to talk to you about today.

Not the highly stressful, but still garden-variety disappointments and failures—the grade you deserved but did not get. The coveted job or spot in a graduate program you lost to the competition. The new relationship that ended before it really began. You get the picture.

What I am talking about are the searing physical, psychological, or emotional body blows that leave you gasping for breath. The episodes that come out of nowhere and totally upend, totally shatter your world.

These moments inflict real pain. They create deep loss. And they leave scars.

In my case, the scars were literal and metaphorical. My literal scar runs six inches down my abdomen. I know. I measured it for this speech. We are nothing if not committed to facts and data at Johns Hopkins.

At first, the scar was a nagging, undeniable reminder of that time of terror and anxiety.

And so, you will understand that I wanted the scar to disappear. I was determined to move on. I wanted no trace of that very dark time.

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But of course, that is not entirely possible. Scars have a way of making their presence felt and seen.

Our med school graduates will tell you that scars harness the same material as normal tissue—collagen—but that they form at an accelerated rate and in a different pattern. Think emergency tire patch. They are strong, but they are never a seamless facsimile of our skin. Scars heal us, but they also mark us permanently and change us profoundly.

So why share (or you might say, "over-share") this with you today?

The truth is that all of us have, or, in time, will have scars from life's traumas. No one—truly no one—escapes unscathed. Some scars are visible. Others form on the inside, the unseen responses to psychological and emotional wounds born of crushing grief, wrenching personal tragedy, or economic devastation.

If we are fortunate, over time a scar stops being a marker of one's past pain or one's inherently fragile claim to a long life, and becomes instead a symbol of something more.

A scar is a beacon, calling to mind the moments when we see clearly what matters most to us. Making lifelong friends—like the ones who I'm sure are graduating with you today. Or spending your life with a soulmate, who is willing to be married to you 20 or 30 years later and kids who are willing to be seen with you—ever. Or landing, as I did, a dream job that is not just a job but a calling, surrounded by truly extraordinary people in a truly extraordinary place and at a truly extraordinary time.

A scar is also a reminder that moments of personal despair are at once exceptional and yet profoundly ordinary. In this, they call upon us to think beyond ourselves. In my case, I confronted the reality that while I might be denied decades of expected life, I also knew well how fortunate I was that I had already surpassed in both longevity and material comfort the lives of so many across our globe.

And finally, a scar can be an invocation to hopefulness. A call to allow ourselves—in the words of psychiatrist George Vaillant—to "remember the future," so that we can make it through the present and find ourselves stronger and ready to invest in days to come.

As you leave here, know that the scars you carry—or will in time carry—need not diminish you. They can offer you the perspective, the strength, and the equanimity to face more and do more than you ever dreamed possible. They can expand the circumference of your own empathy and understanding. They can clarify what inspires you. And above all, they can connect you powerfully to the people who matter most.

And today, graduates, you matter most.

To the great, great Class of 2019, we are so very proud of each and every one of you.

We can't wait to see what will come next.

Godspeed!