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Vol 39  No 15
June 7, 2007


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Address to convocation by

Dr. Moyra Buchan

Sometimes, things happen in your life that you could never possibly have dreamed of.  That I am standing here today, before this eminent gathering, speaking to you who are setting out – or, some of you, advancing – on your career paths, is something I could never have imagined, and I am profoundly grateful to the university for this great honour. 

But the first thing I want to say is that this honour belongs to many people.  I am here because I’ve had the opportunity, and the privilege, of working with many others in the mental health world, and had a role to play in articulating the issues.  I’ve been able to do that because I’ve learned from the experience and insight of many people – most of all from the people who live with mental illness and major mental health issues, and from my colleagues in the field, and I want to honour them all.

And the next thing I want say is, congratulations to each one of you who has graduated here today.  You’ve met the challenges of your course of study, you’ve achieved your degree, and you’re on the threshold of the next stage of your life, whatever shape that will take.  It’s a momentous time for you.

In thinking about what I wanted to say to you today, I’ve been reflecting on the difference between the world I graduated into more than 40 years ago and the world you are living in.  For new graduates in the 1960s, there was lots of optimism:  we had big issues like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, but we had confidence that ours was the generation that could solve it all. We were the Beatles generation, after all, and the generation that first landed on the moon.

The world into which you are graduating, the post 9/11 world, is infinitely more complex – more amazing, more frightening, harder to be confident about. The speed is breathtaking – the speed of communication, the speed of change. You can access the world at the click of a mouse, and tomorrow the technology will be out-of-date and replaced by something faster. You are bombarded by information about spectacular affluence and desperate poverty, about wonderful creativity and terrible violence.  You live in the World Wide Web, in more senses than one – inextricably part of the global community, through politics, through the use of resources, through climate change. In this overwhelmingly complex world, what are the things you can really have confidence in? 

When I think of my own career from the ‘60s to today’s world, I’ve been asking myself, what guided me?  How did I get from there to here?  What made me a mental health advocate?  I started out in a different place, teaching English, but always with the feeling that that wasn’t quite where I belonged.  I remember, when I was trying to decide what direction to take, a wise friend asked me, “What really engages you? What takes you beyond yourself?” and I said right away, “Listening to people and working to solve problems.”  He said, “Sounds like social work to me.”  And of course I was drawn to the mental health field, because of its focus on how the mind works, on people’s thoughts and feelings, from coping with the stresses of our everyday lives to the major mental illnesses.  So basically, I followed my deepest interest.

So the first thing I would say is, find your passion, the thing that truly engages you, and follow it.  Some of you may know already what that is, but you never know how your path is going to unfold.  In my work as a social worker, I constantly came up against the fact that, while helping people deal with distress and difficulty in their lives is indeed valuable, it’s not enough.  I got to know many people who faced major difficulties – abusive relationships, traumatic injury, serious illness – for whom these difficulties were made much greater because they couldn’t get decent housing, or enough money to live on, or the kind of support they needed.  So for me the focus shifted to the social structures and attitudes that need to change if we are to solve the root problems -- the problems of poverty and lack of understanding that keep people marginalized, on the edges of society.  And the opportunity to work directly on those issues came with my role at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

So it’s important to be open to change and opportunity, to responding to the things that engage and grow that vital interest.  And those opportunities are all around you.  Whatever field you find yourself working in, you’ll be connected to other people; you’ll witness their experiences and hear their points of view.  What made me a mental health advocate was knowing people who had mental illnesses – something they never chose to have, a very difficult experience in itself – and seeing how our service system, and the attitudes in society, made living with their illness much harder than it had to be.   Many ideas were planted in my mind by other people, many things I would never have thought of or figured out on my own.  So really, we never do anything on our own – we are in constant interaction with others. If you keep listening, and stay open to expanding your ideas, you will never get stuck or be alone in your journey. 

And when difficulties or problems arise, that in itself can be an opportunity to reconsider your approach, to think outside the box.  So much knowledge, so many discoveries, have come from the desire to solve problems, and it’s no different in our own lives.   It’s been confirmed for me profoundly by people I’ve worked with, as well as in my own life – our greatest difficulties are often the source of our greatest growth.  I have seen people move beyond the sense of devastation that often comes with a diagnosis of mental illness, and become insightful and inspiring educators.  It can be transforming, when something goes wrong – once you get past the initial reaction – to think, “What am I going to learn from this that I didn’t know before?”  So be curious about the things that cause you difficulty, because therein lies your best learning. 

Of course, we’d like to avoid the hassle and distress of problems, but we actually don’t have a choice.  They happen.  But we live with the illusion that next week, or next month, or next year, we’ll get everything together and our lives will be stable and under control – and that’s not the way life is. I’ve heard it described as trying to keep frogs in a bowl – you just get them all gathered up, and two hop out. Yet somehow we think our lives are supposed to be smooth and trouble free and we spend a lot of energy trying to make them that way, trying to get things just right. The fact is, the only constant in life is change: every situation will hold something we don’t anticipate, and with it another opportunity to become wiser.    

I had an experience recently that brought home to me how each new situation can challenge us afresh.  I had stopped at traffic lights downtown and saw a man on the sidewalk.  He was agitated and quite dishevelled, and he was shouting.  I thought immediately that he might have a mental illness, but I was also aware of a clutch of anxiety about what to do if he approached me.  Then a young woman ran across the street, and called him by name.  She said to him, very gently, “Have you had your breakfast?” She gave him some money, he beamed his gratitude, and went off – for breakfast.  That moment taught me that, even after all these years as a mental health advocate and educator, I could still experience the uncertainty that people who don’t have my background often feel; and also that what cuts through all the barriers is being able to see the real person, as that young woman did, and being kind.

So I believe the most important thing of all, in this unpredictable, complex world we live in, is to practice kindness and compassion.  Compassion is something that starts with yourself.  We have such high expectations of ourselves, and often beat ourselves up when we fall short, when we don’t get things right.  But if we can see, with kindness, what a hard time we give ourselves, and understand that this is human nature, this is what we all do, it becomes possible to extend that understanding to other people, and we have some hope of increasing the sum of genuine compassion in the world.

So never think that you cannot make a difference – in your personal lives, in your work, in your communities.  Follow your deepest interest, listen and learn from other people, be kind to yourself and others.  And embrace every moment in this complex world of ours because, however daunting the problems it presents, it is also a wonderful and amazing time to be alive, not least in this beautiful province with its rich and creative culture.  The glass is never half-empty – it’s always at least half full.     

So congratulations, graduates of 2007.  I wish you the courage and good fortune to explore and experience the very best that life has to offer you.  Let me leave you with two lines translated from the poet Goethe:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

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