This is the text of a keynote address given by Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz on May 21, 2012, to the graduating class of the Psychology Department of the University of Maryland. We offer it here as a way to share Dr. Koplewicz’s best wishes and wisdom to all those graduating from college this year, as well as their justifiably proud parents.
The first thing I would like to say is “Thank you.” Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility. I have thought deeply about what I ought to say to you today— this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your degree in psychology. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation from the University of Maryland, and what important lessons I have learned in the years that have transpired between that day and this.
When I was a teenager, my father urged me to acquire a profession I could take with me wherever I might find myself. As a Polish-Jewish immigrant and survivor of 14 concentration camps, he told me: “What we carry in the mind means everything.” At the time, he was talking about the knowledge and skills I could develop as a physician. No matter what happens in the world and no matter where you find yourself my father would say, “You can work, be productive and contribute.” But over time, his words have come to mean something more. The reason why I became a psychiatrist and specifically a child psychiatrist is because what’s in a child’s head, or mind, limits or enables all that he or she can be.
I want to share with you a few of the lessons I carry with me.
I arrived at College Park in September, 1970, and, because of a shortage of dormitory rooms, I joined a fraternity, Phi Sigma Delta, which later merged with ZBT. While I didn’t think of myself as a frat boy—imagine a very skinny, liberal New York Jewish kid with an afro hanging out with jocks from Baltimore—this was certainly an exercise in getting out of my comfort zone. But the fraternity gave me opportunities I didn’t know existed. I was able to get involved in many university-wide activities, including being one of the founders of an annual charity dance marathon that raised thousands of dollars for muscular dystrophy.
Another example of being out of my comfort zone occurred on July 1, 1979, which was one of the more frightening days of my life. I was a first-year general psychiatry resident, and it was my first day at New York Hospital-Westchester Division. All of the patients were in a circle with the nurses, the three residents who were leaving, and us, the three new residents. As the patients, talked and vented their anxiety—some of them quite delusional—I felt like I was on a different planet and didn’t understand the language. I could feel how anxious I was, along with a creeping sensation that I might have made a mistake going down this road. When the morning session ended, one of the patients assigned to me grabbed the leg of the resident who had been his doctor and begged him, “Please don’t leave me with him,” him meaning me. And it took all of my self-control not to grab his other leg and say, “Please, I made a mistake, don’t leave.”
Life is made up of many decisions, some of which are based on careful consideration. Others amount to capitalizing on lucky accidents like my fraternity experience. I think my first and most important piece of advice to you is to expect, and plan for, both sorts of choices. That is certainly my experience. I made a very deliberate choice to give up pediatrics for psychiatry, typical for many psychiatrists, because I could already feel the frustration when the most interesting cases are taken away from you. “You’re going to get bored in pediatrics,” my mentor in medical school, Dr. Charles Botstein, told me. “You should pick a field on the frontier.”
And I surely felt like I was on a frontier that day in 1979—a frontier farther out than I had anticipated. I’m sure you are all familiar with the fear and uncertainty of doing something for the first time. But my decision to pursue child and adolescent psychiatry was directly tied to that first day and the realizations I had.
What did I realize? It’s simple: With kids, the prognosis is much better. I chose to work with children because I truly enjoy it, but also because I saw an opportunity to prevent and minimize what I saw in White Plains that first day. Of course, this is not to say that treating and caring for adults with psychiatric illness isn’t rewarding. But with young people I saw that I could treat someone with 6 months (or even 2 years) of symptomatic behavior as opposed to someone who has been living with and adjusting to a disorder for 20 years.
So, while my first year in general psychiatry was very traumatic and dramatic, the opportunity eventually to work with kids with psychiatric disorders was incredibly rewarding, and that feeling continues to this day. Since completing my fellowship in 1983 I have never passed a single day when I regret making the decision to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
I also have never regretted doing a research fellowship, another fairly random opportunity that made me a better doctor and a better thinker. When I stumbled into research I realized that one did not have to make a choice—that my experience in the lab would make me a better clinician at the same time, sharper, more cautious, and less likely to make erroneous assumptions and generalizations.
I love my job and am happy with the choices I’ve made. Still, my advice is not that you become a child psychiatrist—although you should, by all means!—but that you remain open to the opportunities that surround you every day as you step into your future, whether it be continuing your education and professional training or entering the workforce.
But unfortunately life is not all about choice or happy accidents. It can also be difficult and complicated and beyond your total control. Your talent and intelligence will not inoculate you against failure, hardship or heartbreak.
So much of our culture is focused on perfection that you may have gotten the message that failure is fatal, that it’s better not to try than to risk embarrassment. And so my second piece of advice to you is that as you learn, acquire skills, develop your talents—seek the proverbial cure for cancer—you should also value the work it takes, the practice, the trial and error, the mistakes. And nurture your ability to learn from those mistakes.
It is not just about achievement: Learning to move beyond mistakes and setbacks is what will allow you to develop emotional resilience, which is what separates those who overcome the obstacles and loss they encounter and those who are overwhelmed by them. Some people seem to be born more resilient than others, but studies of trauma show that resilience is also a learned behavior. Those who recover best from trauma are not those who have never experienced a previous setback, but those who have faced some challenges and learned to move past them.
If you want an extraordinary example of resilience take my late father. He came to this country in 1949 after being in many concentration camps, lost most of his family during the Holocaust, and arrived in NYC with a Polish law degree that was worthless in the United States. But he overcame! He had a very successful marriage, started a business and had a rewarding career, had children, and grandchildren. And when his wife, my mother, got Alzheimer’s, and died, he survived and fell in love again at 89. Two years ago before having cardiac surgery at age 94½ he told my sons, “Don’t worry if I die. I won’t die young. And more importantly, except for the Holocaust, I have had a wonderful life.”
Allow what you learn to permeate your life. This doesn’t seem like much of a task to you now, I’m sure, but you will learn so much about the human condition in the coming years. Give what you learn to your family, friends, and the world. And, learn from your family, friends, and colleagues, and savor that which takes you furthest from what you think you want. Accept and cherish novelty. These frontiers are where inspiration lies.
The landscape of our world is always changing, these days in exciting ways that will shape your career. But there will always be underserved populations, and people who fall through the cracks. Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. If you choose to use your skills and abilities to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence as they do today, but thousands and perhaps even millions of people whose lives you have helped change. I guarantee that if you identify unmet needs and strive to meet them, your life will be, despite difficulties and frustrations, ultimately incredibly rewarding.
Thank you very much for letting me share this important day with you. Congratulations to all the parents and best of luck to the graduates!