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Developing your Ikigai


Abdallah S. Daar
Abdallah S. Daar

On this important day why do I wish I were in your place instead of mine? Because there is more uncertainty in your lives, and that means more promise, a greater flutter of the heart, more likelihood of more silos being shattered, a more equal and just world. Among you are those so privileged you came to this great university almost by birthright; others have struggled and sacrificed greatly to get here. Your individual stories are fascinating, yet you share many wonderful values. Your generation is less inclined to judge others by wealth or background, religion, sexual orientation or skin color. Let me tell you a story. When I was a surgeon in Oman, I had a wonderful Canadian colleague called McDonald, who had strong, healthy daughters and sons, one of whom had a new girlfriend. He called home to say he was bringing Jane for dinner and when they arrived, the parents had a slightly puzzled look, and calling the son aside, Dr. McDonald said: "Why didn't you tell us on the phone Jane was black?" The son replied: "Dad, I just hadn't noticed!" That is one reason why I came to Canada and why Canada is such a great country.

Today is a day of many transitions: from the womb of university to the world of work; from the loving embrace of parents to the world of outside freedom; from dependency to independence; from youth to adulthood. But what will you make of that growing up? Adults are not all that smart after all. One of my favorite books is "The Little Prince" by Antoine de St. Exupery, in which the Little Prince says "Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them". I learnt from the Little Prince to see everything with childlike wonder. So what else do incipient grown-ups need to know?

Humanity has never had so many tools with which to build a more perfect life. Cheap travel, computers, cell phones, the Internet, social networks, the ability with one click to donate a mosquito bed net that might save an African child from dying of malaria. But in these times of transition, all this may seem confusing and you may think you are alone in this confusion. But you are not. None of you knows where you will be or what you will be doing in 5 years. So relax. Be excited and challenged by the uncertainty, knowing it will all work out well in the end.

The very meaning of life is change, and all change, even at the DNA level, is risky. You could spend much time worrying, trying to mitigate risk. You will not always succeed, and if you try to mitigate every risk, you will mitigate the very joy out of life. There will always be black swans. Learn early what's important and what's not, and don't sweat the small stuff. Learn to listen to your inner voice, and if it says take that fork in the road, take it, and if that turns out to be wrong, learn from the experience and move on. That inner voice in time will help you distinguish calculated risks from recklessness.

But first you need to foster that inner voice through sincere reflection. Don't sleep without reflecting on your day's actions and their motives. That inner voice will become your best friend. It may not always seem rational or logical at first, for some of what it says comes from the heart. But it will help to chart your own road in life, allowing you to grow naturally, alone internally, but outside in comradeship, working with others in groups yet avoiding groupthink. It will become the seat of your passion, your idealism, the font of all your innovations. Without that inner voice there is no real "you". So if it means taking a year or two to backpack in the Andes or the Himalayas to discover it that will be time well spent.

But if you discover it early here at University Avenue, that's great too, for it will leave you more time to travel, and travel allows you to listen to the stories of other people. As Athol Fugard observed, "The only safe place is inside a story." You can have no empathy, no full human life if you don't learn to listen to other people's stories, and let them touch you.

When I was a medical student in Uganda and violence and madness broke out around me, there were times when death was very close. That sense of vulnerability shaped my approach to life. I learnt to value all life immensely, and to realize that others have needs and sufferings that I may be able to alleviate through my work. Later, as a transplant surgeon, I learnt in a very practical way what life and death actually mean. So, when is it that you die? It is not when the heart stops, for the heart can be restarted. It is when the brain dies that a person really dies. This is why the human brain with its mind is the greatest, most important, most evolved gift in the whole of creation. To waste it, to let it lie fallow, not to use it to reduce life's inequities, is a huge crime. To misuse it, to reduce the sum of goodness in creation, is an even bigger crime.

Brain death has thus become the basis of organ donation for transplantation, a direct form of altruism. I believe that altruism is hard-wired in us, ultimately an expression of our common humanity, of thinking of ourselves as members of one species, with not just rights but duties and obligations to one another and with stewardship responsibilities to Nature. The African philosophy of Ubuntu says that "I am because we are." And no one has expressed this sentiment better that Martin Luther King when he said "It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

As you go out into the world you will interact with many people. How will you know them? You could ask them what books they read. What is their most memorable or moving moment? Or what is their greatest mistake. My most memorable moment was when an incredibly sad mother approached to ask me to remove the tiny kidneys of her prematurely born baby with brain abnormalities that resulted in his death. She wanted me to transplant them into another child who would otherwise die without functioning kidneys. I am sure that bereaving mother would gladly have given up her own life to save her child. But she could not. And here she was, thinking of how she could help save the life of another child through that singular act of generosity.

And my biggest mistake? It was to have spent so little time with my children when they were growing up. One of them is in the audience today. I was too busy studying and working and doing research. I wish I had learned then how important it is to lead a balanced life.

In the end, you will ask yourselves if you have led a good life. How will you know? Did you sleep easily at night? Did you make a difference? Were you part of a community? Healthy food, exercise, not smoking will increase your life expectancy to some extent. What will make a bigger difference, though, is having close friends, a loving family, being part of a caring, mutually supportive community that hugs and kisses and creates healthy interdependencies. I love the saying "A stranger is a friend I haven't met yet." These are the things that will give you your own "ikigai" as the Japanese call it- the reason to wake up in the morning; the reason for being.

Today the sun rose at 5:38:06 in Toronto. So let me read this little poem I wrote for you. I have called it:


Beguiling, mysterious, searching as a 5 year old granddaughter's smile
Today's first rays peeked from the edge of darkness, seemed to ask:
Will you journey with me, mile after mile
Until I am commanded back across the horizon at dusk?

Choiceless, will my essence reveal your trampling, irontinged leather boots
Hurting, humiliating, adding more ice water to that sac around your coeur
Or show you sandaled, sapiential, stopping to smell those frangipani shoots
On your way out to listen to the story of the other?

That flame in the belly, what is it to achieve?
Perchance to illumine those dark spaces where silent tears flow,
Adding another strand to Martin Luther's weave?
For when you call, there is never an answer, only an echo, an echo

Congratulations again. Go in confidence. The world is waiting!

Abdallah Daar

A video of Abdallah's talk is available at http://www.vimeo.com/12492922 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V5ElO_ZdYc. [Ed.]

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