Lessons in Happiness*

2004 WFU Commencement
May 17, 2004
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University

Across the years, with each graduating class, I have shared a reflection on life and living often drawn from my family or personal experience. I trust that you will indulge me again this year.

Commencement is a time of great transition, a singular moment never to be forgotten. As you look forward to the next phases in your lives, you are also concluding a phase in the life of Wake Forest. Your accomplishments and talents have invested you in your alma mater and enriched this university’s greatest asset, our network of devoted, talented people.

* * *

I join you fully in the satisfactions of this day. A few weeks back, I was not sure I would be with you today, so I am especially happy to celebrate this occasion. The past months for me have been sometimes shocking and generally instructive. I suspect that you have experienced similar emotions, perhaps in your first semester at Wake Forest. I trust that your education here will have prepared you to take the fullest instruction from the experiences that come your way.

Last fall, after a period of mild symptoms and medical tests and examinations, I learned that I had a brain tumor. My first challenge upon hearing what no one ever wants to hear was coming to terms with this news and sharing it with my family and closest friends.

It was a difficult process, especially in the beginning, but the expression of loving relationships, promises of support, and evidence of affection quickly gave me the comforting knowledge that I would not be walking this path alone. My wife became a medical care giver to me in a way that underscored our love and commitment to each other. She is a kind of miracle worker and gave me unwavering reassurance at each juncture we faced.

Both of us turned to our family and friends, and those relationships of love and trust grew ever more important. To have such a group — large or small — who stand with you in good times and bad is the greatest blessing, and I encourage you to build your own families and invest in the lives of your friends.

A second challenge was dealing with the illness itself. How fortunate we are to have the Wake Forest University Medical School, a place where medical care is grounded in world class research. The combination of compassion and extraordinary professional preparation that I encountered from every person involved in my treatment gave me courage, confidence, and a growing understanding of my condition.

My tumor was found early and could be treated aggressively, and I am well enough to have resumed my work and my life.

* * *

And here again I have found another great source of strength and comfort. When I had to take a leave of absence, the entire Wake Forest community — faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends — formed a bond that supported both the University and me. The trustees and the administration, especially Provost Gordon, took on extra duties to keep the University’s life and work on course.

All the while, my family and I received countless cards, notes and promises of prayers. My family and I were the direct beneficiaries of the spirit of Wake Forest. So, should any of us imagine that the essential spirit of Wake Forest has been diminished in the University’s growth, I assure you that this spirit is flourishing. It requires that we reach each other with grace. You have given me this grace, and I thank you and Wake Forest for this support, for each prayer and each good wish.

* * *

This whole experience has allowed me to focus on significant lessons.

On this day of transition, you and I share the anxiety of uncertainty. My uncertainty is to some extent ever present and has become a way of life. And it has taught me, more intensely than other experience, how fragile our assumptions about life truly are.

We must never reach the point of abandoning the better and more hopeful possibilities of life, even in great difficulty. The profound balance between our frail human condition and the dauntless human spirit to be and to achieve is ever-refined by our experience, bringing us closer to a true understanding of life and ourselves. To see each other, our families, our endeavors, and ourselves with this perspective allows us to live our lives fully and without regret.

Your uncertainty today arises from a very different set of circumstances, but I hope that the balance and perspective that I have just described will help guide you.

* * *

We must never fail, in these and other days, to send our prayers and good wishes to those in need. Pro Humanitate is, in fact, a gift that grows from personal relationships. I am here as a testament to this ministry.

May God send you to serve Pro Humanitate in whatever paths you walk.

And when you someday find yourself in a place of need, that same spirit will be there to serve and to heal you.

* I want to thank Vardaman Buckalew and Peter Donofrio for their help in diagnosis. Ed Shaw, Glenn Lesser, and Stephen Tatter have managed my treatment. These and others are due my respect and gratitude.