Keynote Address

Dr. Amy Acton

178th Ohio Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremony
May 7, 2022

Dr. Amy Acton delivers the Keynote Address at OWU’s 2022 Commencement Ceremony. (Photo by Paul Vernon)

Hello, everyone. It is so good to see you. Thank you so much, President Jones, Melissa. To all the faculty and the staff who have made me feel so incredibly welcome here, it’s not good to start your address crying, but I’m just so moved.

If you’re not from Ohio, I’m sorry if I do a few insider jokes in this, but if you are from Ohio, you know that I’ve been talking to you alone in a room through a small lens of a camera. But on the other side of that camera was all of us, and I felt you there, and to see us all here together today, none of us takes this for granted. We will never take this for granted again.

I want to tell you a few behind-the-scenes stories if I could … and a few lessons on leadership that I’ve learned in going through this.

I want to say to the young people here, this is not an ordinary moment, and truth be told, you are not an ordinary generation. Because we’ve never before had the entire world go through the same thing at the same time in quite this way, and you are part of that. I often think of you old, sitting back, telling those stories of the great pandemic of ’20 to ’22 because I’m going to end it this year.

I imagined you as the greatest force for good in history. I’ve started to think of you as Generation C, and that is not for just COVID, or chaos, or all the challenges you have faced. But I think of it for all the things that I’ve heard today … for your courage, for your compassion, that you’re collaborative, that you’re change agents.

I want to talk today about finding your own compass. I can tell you I had to rely on a compass that I’ve built my entire life. You have started it here, but I’ve honed it and honed it, and it really, really served me well.

To begin with, if you were in Ohio, you probably heard the phrase, “Not all heroes wear capes.” Early on in March (2020), I was approached by Ryan Vesler, the owner of Homage, a really awesome T-shirt and apparel company, and he said to me that I was trending. And that was sort of lost on me. I have 55 000 Twitter followers, but I have never once tweeted.

He said he wanted to do a Dr. Amy T-shirt, and I said, “You know, I don’t think that’s going to work because you’re going to know me for about a month or two. But before this pandemic is over, there are going to be so many heroes. It is like a baton passing off.”

And that is so true. I remember talking to the university presidents who then became heroes, to the nurses, the frontline workers, to every school board member, to every teacher, to every one of us. Any leader faced what the governor and I faced. It’s weird how life can just evoke your character when you least expect it.

There isn’t any one of us here who has not been challenged or touched, but I have to say I’m a very ordinary person who found herself in an extraordinary moment in history. I never imagined myself there, but I did have this compass. It began for me with studying Joseph Campbell. He was someone I discovered at about your age who had studied all world religions and mythologies, and I actually mentioned him during the press conferences. He realized in looking at all of this history that there seemed to be a theme of a life well-lived, and he thought that all of us have to embark on a hero’s journey of one sort or another in our lives – not always on camera and, in fact, many of the most courageous things I’ve done were not on camera.

But he believed that every one of us has to grab a compass or a map of some sort, and we have to go into that dark force at some point or another, face our worst fears, maybe get to slay a dragon or two, and if we’re lucky and we make it out, we bring the gold, gold back to our society. … He inspired George Lucas to do star wars. I just believe every one of us has that story in us, so I’m going to share with you a few tips of how I develop my compass.

First of all, I have three concepts to share with you. We had The New York times do a video op-ed in in May of 2020. They watched seven weeks of our press conferences together, and they said there were themes that emerged. I’d like to say they’re intentional but to be honest, I was just being me.

But the things we used in the space we found together were brutal honesty, vulnerability and courage, and then empowerment, a call to action.

So, brutal honesty: I happen to be a person who just likes to throw the cards on the table. Maybe it’s part of my childhood, but I’ve always felt that if we just lay it all out there and bring as many people as we can around that table, we’ll be able to solve it. And that’s what we did in the beginning of the pandemic. Now we know truth was a little bit hard to find. At one point, even though I’m a global health physician I was googling the word pandemic because I couldn’t understand why no one was calling it that.

“Make no mistake, you are on this journey, and I’m going to share a very brutal truth with you. You are going to be asking the questions – the create-yourself questions – of who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, how do I find what I love, and what do I give back to the world? And you will be asking those, as I’ve seen patients do to the very last moments of their lives. It is a journey, and the brutal truth is, you are going to think you are lost.

Life up to now can feel kind of linear, like you follow a certain path and then it becomes pluripotential. There are so many choices in so many directions. And I want to tell you this, you think are lost, you feel you’re lost, but there is nothing wrong with you. You have not messed up your life, and I met so many students in the office hours were so afraid that they might mess it up.

But the truth is your life’s going to be like a mini pandemic. It’s unpredictable. It’s just true, right. You know it here because you’re out there. You’re still asking the same questions, right. You know you are going to have the rug pulled out from you when you least expect it. And the way will not feel clear, but don’t panic. Don’t resist what life brings you.

This is where you hone your compass. The compass is something that’s hardwired in all of us. I believe it so deeply now. You have your thinking self, but there’s also your feeling self, and then there’s just that gut something you were born with that just knows what your right life is for you. And you hone it and hone it with each of your adventures and choices. It’s the well of your being – that’s where well-being comes from. It’s your heart and soul.

Life is like a breadcrumb path of clues. You go clue, to clue, to clue. You make a choice. And it’s super good when the choice goes well, and you feel good, and time falls away, and you’re in your zone. You definitely want to notice that but, more importantly, notice when it doesn’t go well.

It’s right in the middle of those times when you’re suffering the most that there is the next greatest clue for what is best for you. I trained my leadership team at ODH (Ohio Department of Health) to do this. It has never failed me. If I sit with it long enough, and it’s hard because it’s uncomfortable, inevitably right in the middle of every crisis in your life is the pearl of the next thing. … We all wish life was free of suffering but Nietzsche said suffering is essential to your soul. People talk about your generation like that is somehow damaging you, but you don’t get the joy and love without the suffering. So, stay with it – that’s when the magic happens. …

For me during the pandemic at home, there was a moment I woke up, and everything that had ever happened in my life, good or bad, all of a sudden was exactly what I needed. There was a moment, and I felt it.

Secondly, vulnerability: Please have the courage to be yourself and use your unique gifts to serve others. And courage does not mean there’s no fear. I famously said, “I’m not afraid, I’m determined” on the day of the stay-at-home order. Honestly, it’s not that I didn’t sometimes feel fear, but courage is just that will to keep going, that Winston Churchill “when you’re going to hell keep going.” That phrase was actually something like many of the things I said, that were completely unscripted, which is so rare that a governor would let that happen. That was something my husband said to me that day – a high school teacher and coach walking out the door (telling me) “you’re not afraid, you’re determined.” That’s what happened there. …

It was like a humanitarian crisis of a scale and scope and duration, and nobody was entirely ready for it. It was a lot like a 911 moment when four days after that we all didn’t know a stranger in the world, and in Ohio, I swear there were four to six weeks where everyone in Ohio was trying to do the right thing and help one another. I hope you felt it the way I saw it.

A lot of people talk about the hate and the vitriol that I endured and so many others have since, and I don’t want to make little of it. It was real. It was dangerous. But the story I want you to know is there was so much more love. There was so much more love.

Literally my only wish was that Ohioans would pull each other up on that life raft because there are no amount of orders, there are no amount of mandates that would ever, ever, ever flatten the curve. But in Ohio we did, because of what Ohioans did – what you did. And that is just the truth. …

And you what? Our mail rooms started to fill up. These giant mail rooms for the governor and me, and you could not walk in them for what Ohioans sent. They made art. They made meaning out of things. There was 90-year old Bonnie Bowen who would do a watercolor every day of the pandemic, and literally 300-and-some days into it, she got COVID. And she got hundreds of thousands of prayer messages from all over, and you can’t tell me that didn’t help her get through it.

People did things like “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” spread and their giant bacon statue appeared in a corporate park in Cincinnati. A mom and her kid made signs that said “Act on Love Not Hate,” and so that became Ohio’s mantras: Don your cape, don your mask, act on love not hate, act on kindness not fear. Because there is a contagion worse than the virus and, as we’ve all seen, it is fear.

It was the ambiguity we all had to tolerate. It was the unknown. So, kindness is an antidote, an age-old enduring. It’s not niceness where you just say nice things and run behind someone’s back – kindness is fierce. Do not mistake it for weakness. It is honoring the humanity in one another, and that’s what I witnessed Ohioans do in a profound way.

If enough of us do the right thing most of the time, all of us will get through. And that, that is herd immunity for science buffs here, and that that is what we need to do going forward.

Finally, empowerment: You know I tried every press conference to have a little call to action, just something I could think of that we could do for one another. And as MLK says, an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the concerns of broader humanity.

There are moments you will face in your life, big ones and little, where you just can’t unsee it, where you just have to look it in the eye. It’s a moment for higher angels, as I said to the president’s chief of staff the last week of February when the stock market crashed for the second time. And then the governor and I came out made the promise we will tell you the truth as we know it.

People are so hungry for trustworthiness and decency. And I need you, Generation C, to don those capes. It is your time. It is your generation’s time. And make no doubt about it, we are at an inflection point. We can’t afford to grow complacent and in our joy of reemerging leave the work undone.

We are yet in another stage of this pandemic. It’s a different stage, but this is maybe one of the hardest because no one’s narrating it for us. This is a stage that requires each of us to realize that we are all emerging differently, and it takes tremendous mercy and grace with one another. It takes, once again, all of the partisanship we see reaching out to one another and pulling us up onto our common ground.

I want you to get in some John Lewis good trouble. I want you to create the conditions in which all of us can lead flourishing lives. So COVID, Generation C, you’re so much more than that chaos. Please lead with courage and compassion. You are co-creators of community. You are ready for the hard conversations and the fights.

Our next task is to mourn and memorialize and make meaning. I believe you are uniquely positioned to make meaning out of all we have endured and live lives of purpose and lives that matter, matter deeply.

I just think you will walk the journey – you will do your hero’s journey – a little bit differently. In the words of fellow Gen C’er, “There is always light if only we are brave enough to see it and only we are brave enough to be it.” You have already been so brave. It is my deepest honor to be here with you today, just the deepest honor. Go forward well. Thank you.

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