Like many, I was thrilled to hear that Marquette’s head honchos chose Dr. Paul Farmer as the keynote speaker for this year’s Mission Week.
Though I have never read any of his books and only glanced at his biography, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a number of my friends enthusiastically told me of his tireless work providing health care to those living in poverty in Haiti.
Bearing these shining endorsements in mind, I went to Farmer’s address at the Varsity Theatre last Thursday expecting inspiration. I wanted him to galvanize me to, as his speech’s title indicated,“Imagine a More Just World.”
In some ways, that is exactly what happened. Farmer cleverly explained the impetus behind the work of his nonprofit organization, Partners in Health, by pointing out Catholic principles including the Corporal Works of Mercy (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc).
Moreover, his down-to-earth demeanor and easygoing sense of humor served as a pleasant reminder that even the most accomplished of people can still be normal.
But, as Farmer showed photos documenting the improvements that his patients have seen under his care and Powerpoint slides highlighting recent developments in foreign aid to so-called Third World countries, I couldn’t help but feel my mood sink.
“All of this is terrific,” I thought to myself, “but what role can a person like me play in these efforts?”
A person, that is to say, with almost zero scientific knowledge beyond what Dr. James Courtright taught me about lemurs in Biology for Non-Science Majors.
Still sulking as the question-and-answer portion of the address wrapped up, I left feeling envious of the pre-med and science students who probably just obtained a lifetime worth of encouragement.
I almost put all of this out of my mind when I received an e-mail from a professor asking if I would brief our Peace Communication class on Farmer’s remarks. I don’t know whether my problem is that I am too polite or that I have no moxie, but I replied that I would be happy to tell our class about it.
Recalling that I jotted down a few words during the speech, I opened my notebook to see if I could find any pearls that would make me sound intelligent in front of my class. I wrote down the Corporal Works of Mercy because I was embarrassed I didn’t know what they were. I also scribbled “Global Fund,” probably because I was feeling guilty for not writing anything else down for a while.
Beneath that, however, was a brief comment Farmer made near the end of his address: “Look at something that’s not good and see it as the beginning of a conversation to make it better.” Something clicked, and I began to realize what I initially missed.
The reason people like Farmer are admired and lauded so effusively is not because of the specific work they do, though specifics like providing health care to people in Haiti are infinitely important. Rather, their greatness lies in the fact that they initiate new work and new conversations about how to make the world a better place.
Think of Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of these people sought justice in ways that were bold and unique for his or her time and circumstances. This is what
Farmer is doing with his global health initiatives, and this is the reason we talk about these people well after they are gone.
At the risk of getting into Chicken Soup for the Soul territory, we must remember that each of us has a collection of personal characteristics and talents that we can use in our own small way to improve the world.
The mistake I made while listening to Farmer was expecting someone else to tell me how to do this. What I ultimately learned from Farmer is that in order to achieve a more just world, each of us must imagine one for ourselves.