This commencement address was presented by Lionel Traubman, DDS, MSD for the School of Dentistry graduation ceremony of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) on Saturday, June 17, 2006 at the Nob Hill Masonic Center.
A life for everyone
One person's story of change
Congratulations! You were first invited to UCSF because you are very gifted women and men. You responded to the university with excellence. You have been through the fire and succeeded. Your presence in this room is earned and hard won. You deserve applause.
I remember the feeling like yesterday – 1959 – being a freshman dental student, wondering how I’d ever become senior, a dentist. We can make dreams come true.
Yet, in my life, it’s always helped me to stop, to remember I never did anything important alone. Not one of you got here alone. You've all had lots of help.
Take a moment now to remember and feel gratitude for those who helped you. Close your eyes and see them - parents, mentors, neighbors, teachers, ancestors. See them in your mind's eye, name them. Thank them. Take a moment.
The world is flat
So what is my story, and what have I learned in 66 years that would matter for your life?
The first guiding principle my life has validated is this – the world is flat.
It’s another way of saying that there is only one side to Earth, and we all live on the same side.
We used to think there was individual survival – I win, you lose.
Life doesn’t work that way. Not really.
On this Earth, we’re one – neighbors forever. Somos uno. One. Odin. Wahad, in Arabic. Echad, in Hebrew.
Judaism’s first prayer says it: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Echad. One.
We’re just beginning to understand the meaning of One.
I’ll come back to that. I always do.
When I came to Berkeley in ‘57, I loved the campus and singing all the Cal songs.
I knew all the words. I had to, or I’d get paddled in the fraternity.
“Big C” meant to “fight and strive and win (for Blue and Gold.).”
I was a son of California. Big C provided a foundation for my life.
Today, 49 years later, I am recommending for your lives five other very Big Cs – Courage, Communication, Compassion, Creativty, and Change – dearly needed change so we can all become fully human, get along with each other, and save this amazing living planet for many, many, many future generations.
Change always begins with the first Big C – Courage.
I always recognized courage, as a boy growing up in Duluth, Minnesota then Los Angeles.~ ~ ~
Fearing enemies was part of my youth. I was eight in 1948 when we got a TV. I grew up watching and re-watching my heroes win – Victory in Europe, Victory at Sea. I watched over and over Holocaust footage of my millions of Jews dying, and I cried.
My heroes inspired me. Tarzan, Superman, The Cisco Kid. I liked the way Cisco and his sidekick, Pancho – like The Lone Ranger and Tonto – risked it all to help people and each other out of danger. They were unselfish. They risked their lives so good could triumph.
My uncles were my heroes. Four of my mother’s brothers – Jerome, David, Sidney and Leo – all went to Europe to win World War II.
My Grandma Oxman had a flag with four stars in her window. She prayed they’d come home alive. They did.
They were my heroes. Soldiers were, for all of us. When war seemed necessary. We had enemies.
In grade school, I was trained on command to dive under my desk in case atomic attack by enemy Soviets with whom, I was taught, it was impossible to make peace in my lifetime.
~ ~ ~
Growing up in Westwood, I loved UCLA. I hated USC. Then I came to Berkeley. I loved Cal and hated Stanford, and USC and UCLA, as well. Cal won the NCAA basketball title, defeating Cincinnatti with Oscar Robertson, then West Virgina with Jerry West. It was my ultimate dream – the good guys winning, dominating. What a thrill.
In youth, my champions were cowboys, soldiers, and Cal. Courage was about confrontation and subduing others. I was a spectator.
~ ~ ~
Through the years, my ideas continued changing about heroes, courage, confrontation, and my role as an American citizen.
Then September 11, 2001 clarified for me some principles of life.
9/11 showed me that no distance, no technology can ever give us true security.
We will succeed on Earth only with authentic human relationships.
It was true in my dental practice, marriage, parenting, and 25 years of bringing sworn enemies together face to face.
It’s about people and relationships.
~ ~ ~
I wish to be very clear here.
With today’s nuclear, biological and chemical technology, war is forever obsolete.
It’s not extinct. We still use it. But it’s outmoded.
Violence in anyone’s hands doesn’t work.
The means is the ends in the making.
This calamity that’s going on today – what a tragedy of old thinking.
In our world, universities, offices, homes we need a very new kind of courage.
A new kind of warrior, mastering the most important weapon – the second Big C – Communication.
Within days after 9/11, a major U.S. newspaper invited Libby and me to communicate – write a guest editorial about the meaning of 9/11. We titled it, “Listen to Terrorists, Listen to Everyone.”~ ~ ~
In the 1980s, Libby and I saw Soviet citizens weep in gratitude when we Americans learned their language and visited their hospitals and homes in the midst of the Cold War.
It took some courage to publish that in the midst of a nation overcome by a fear that is enslaving us to this day.
We reminded America about the neglected, disrespected, unheard students at Columbine, Colorado high school who had recently run amuck murdering their classmates.
We understood from decades of work with warring adversaries that “an enemy is one whose story we have not heard.”
Neglected people become desperate. Communication heals, in your practice and in the world.
I had taught myself some Russian. It meant the world to them – enemies no more.
And we’ve seen hundreds of Jews and Palestinians refuse to be enemies after their stories were heard and equal humanity acknowledged by the “other.”
Call it “born again” – this heart-connection and almost-genetic change within, when people start wanting the best for the “other” and not only for themselves.
Listening and communicating is one of the great acts of love and healing.
It can cause small miracles, and sometimes big ones.
And listening will make you the best kind of diagnostician, boss, teacher, partner, peacemaker.
~ ~ ~
Once a woman was drifting through my office building in real distress because dentists had dismissed her, didn’t understand her, wouldn’t or couldn’t help her. She needed direction. She was desperate.
I stopped everything in my office – treatments, phone calls, everything – to my nurses’ distress.
I sat down facing this woman I’d never met and listened to her. I never interrupted her. And finally she just burst into tears and said, “No one ever listened to me like this.” She sobbed.
To this day, I cannot tell you about her problem or the solution. I remember only the power of listening and communication, and how simply being heard matters so much to people, to our world.
You can see by this example that Communication leads naturally to the third Big C – Compassion.
From the clinic and your lives, you already know that good communication and understanding is what we all long for. We do. Our patients do. Our enemies do.~ ~ ~
We can do it. This is my faith. Everyone has a soul. The soul’s oldest memory is of union. And the soul’s deepest longing is for reunion.
These times call for unprecedented empathy – seeing and feeling life as others do.
But people want to take sides. It’s easier. It’s our default setting.
What would it mean to listen to both peoples, equally – Sunnis and Shiites, management and employees, women and men?
To be for all people, equally, in our personal and global relationships?
What keeps us from being pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, for two equally excellent peoples?
Given a safe place and opportunity, almost everyone wants to work it out. That is my experience.
~ ~ ~
The Muslim Sufi mystic, Rumi, says: “Out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
This field of goodwill is the new arena, where real power lies with the new warrior with the courage to be the first to listen, the best at telling her or his human story so the other will experience a real, equal human being who wants the best for everyone. Everyone – no exceptions.
~ ~ ~
Libby and I deal with Arabs and Jews every day. In America, in the Middle East, they describe only their own story, their own pain, their own victimhood, their own dreams.
They cannot feel the pain and humanity of the other, because almost none of them have ever met. We have never known one another. We are invisible to each other. It’s universal to most global conflicts.
There is a poverty of relationship. And diplomacy and statesmanship are all but abandoned.
~ ~ ~
This distance between peoples cannot be closed by lawyers nor legislated by governments, while we citizens remain passive and fearful spectators.
We, the people, must engage – citizen-to-citizen, face-to-face, soul-to-soul meeting.
We must get involved in each other’s lives – in our homes, practices, and world.
Because once we do, another amazing thing happens.
Enemies become very good partners. All that wasted energy from resistance, fear, defending, and defeating becomes re-invested in your fourth Big C – Creativity.
You can see what’s happening. When we’re motivated by fear, like this whole nation sadly is today, we can’t be creative. ~ ~ ~
I wish you could meet the new breed of youth and adults Libby and I know and support in the Middle East public peace process – Arabs and Jews who are turning their faces away from violence and toward one another. Listen to their names: Creativity for Peace, Peace It Together, Building Bridges for Peace, Face to Face – Faith to Faith, Abraham’s Vision, Abraham’s Children, Hand in Hand, Hands of Peace. Oseh Shalom~Sanea al-Salam Family Peacemakers Camp, Seeds of Peace. There are many dozens more.
Every perception gets hijacked to our reptile brain, the amygdala, and like animals we are captive to either freeze, flee or fight. The brain doesn’t work right and can’t invent something new.
And Einstein was very clear: “We can’t solve today’s problems with the same kind of thinking that created them.”
Heart-brain science is now confirming for us that when we can make that heart connection with another person – just listening to another’s story, without “yes, but” – the heart tells the brain it’s safe, and the brain finally can work right and get innovative.
~ ~ ~
Each group sprang from the insights and determination of one or two citizens.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one person.”
Never doubt your own power to communicate and create change. I don’t.
~ ~ ~
The 14-year-old Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue that began in our home is getting ready for its 170th meeting. It’s the oldest of its kind in the world. Now there are six like it in the Bay Area. And we’ve helped many dozens begin on campuses and in cities all over North America and beyond. With dedication and time, we’ve learned together about the fifth and last Big C – Change.
We’re just a handful, 30 Palestinians and Jews – Muslims, Christians and Jews – Holocaust refugees and 20th generation Palestinians, who have helped one another and many others to heal and to prove change is possible.~ ~ ~
We’ve had a taste of what anthropologist Margaret Meade discovered long ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
To quote the title of a recent, sophisticated Ph.D. thesis from George Mason University on Dialogue and social change, “Shift Happens.”
We have affected a lot of people. And we’re nobody special – garden-variety citizens willing to meet heads of state or scrub floors – whatever it takes.
~ ~ ~
We keep going, inspired by hundreds of stories of others who are changing:
* The Jewish physicians at Hadassah Hospital who save Palestinian lives all year long.
* The Muslim Palestinian father in Jenin who donated the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver of his slain 12-year-old son, Ahmed Ismail Khatib, to Jewish Israeli children in need.
* Palestinian Omri Abdel-Halim Al-Jada who saved a young Jew, Gosha Leftov, from the undertow of Lake Tiberias, then himself never got back to shore, or to his own family and children.
* Rabbi Arik Ascherman and his fellow Rabbis for Human Rights who put themselves at risk to assure the well-being of underserved and mistreated Arabs as well as Jews.
* Physician Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lives and practices in the besieged Jabalya Refugee Camp, then crosses the border from Gaza to Soroka Hospital to deliver the babies of Israeli mothers.
There are hundreds of these stories of new heroes with new courage to meet, connect at the heart, and finally realize that the earth is flat and all is one – the Lord our God is One, Echad, Wahad, Odin. Somos familia.
I have told you a few stories because Story matters. Story is the new power.
Elie Wiesel says: “People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.”
Pass on these stories that matter, including your own. Your own story matters. Everyone’s story matters, especially the enemy’s.
The Citizen's Century
Our friend Dr. Harold Saunders was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.
Hal facilitated five successful Israeli-Arab treaties, including Camp David.
He says clearly, while governments have their place, “this is The Citizens’ Century.”
Your life for everyone
This citizen-life I’m offering you takes some Courage to Communicate and to Cooperate beyond old borders and taboos.~ ~ ~
So "Go Bears" out of this auditorium and into the world with your new degree and your power to communicate.
It will lead you to unprecedented Creativity and Change – really beautiful Big Cs that the whole world is waiting for, and that can create so much joy.
Remember, the world is flat. Live your life as if that’s so – as if you, your family, your staff, your faculty, your enemies are on the same side, neighbors forever – one.
And when life seems otherwise and impossible, take your adversary by the hand and sit down together.
Say this: “Tell me your story. I want to hear your story.”
You will do so much good.
~ ~ ~
Libby and I bless you with this understanding about life and about your power to be great healers, teachers, and leaders of people – all the people, no exceptions.
On Earth, everyone has a story, and everyone matters.
Lionel "Len" Traubman, DDS, MSD
1448 Cedarwood Drive, San Francisco, CA 94403
Voice: 650-574-8303 -- Fax: 650-573-1217
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