Flinn Scholars

The Inner Journey

May 20, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

Each year, the Selection Committee that interviews finalists for the Flinn Scholarship includes one past Flinn Scholar. That Scholar is then invited to present an address at the Recognition Dinner in May when the new class of Scholars is introduced and graduates of the program are congratulated for their achievements.

This year, the Scholar on the Selection Committee was Siobhan O’Neill (’88). Siobhan, who earned her MD from Northwestern University, is a psychiatrist in private practice in Boston, Massachusetts. She is on the teaching faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Here are Siobhan’s remarks at the Recognition Dinner.

 

Address to the Flinn Scholars, Recognition Dinner, May 2009

It is with great pleasure and deep gratitude that I stand here this evening.  I can hardly believe my good luck, being invited to address all of you, and especially the 24th class of Flinn Scholars, the class of 2009.  I thank the Foundation, particularly John and Michael, for the invitation to be here with you.  I especially thank them for the opportunity to work with such a distinguished panel on the selection committee.  What a privilege to have participated in choosing this class.  There are four hundred Flinn Scholar alumni who might have been here tonight.  Lucky me!  I get to say to you, congratulations, and welcome to the family.  You’re about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.   

I was a Flinn Scholar in the third year of the Flinn Scholars program, the class of 1988.  21 years ago.  I know, I know, you newest Flinns weren’t even born then.  No one had really heard much about the Flinns.  Now there is an entire generation of Flinn Scholars before you. 

When I sat at this dinner in 1988, I was in awe of the path before me.  I already knew I wanted to study the humanities, and then go on to medicine.  I had great hopes about the people I would meet.  But I had no concept, really, of how profoundly my life would be influenced by the rare good fortune of being named a Flinn Scholar.  I believe the deepest influence was being taken into a group, being immediately connected and then held in that connection to these extraordinary people. 

It truly is like joining a family.  The most important friendships of my youth were with other Flinn Scholars.  My oldest son, Kiril, is named for one of those friends.  Another Flinn, Niki Hale, whom I haven’t seen in 14 years, just called me out of the  blue to say she’d be in Boston, could she come for a visit–I was suddenly 18 again, and feeling as though she’d knocked on my door at Yuma hall, and asked me to one of our many chats over coffee.  Barbra Barnes, the original Michael Young is here.  She is still dear to me.  These were and remain significant people in my life.  We were on a journey together.

So, here you are beginning your journeys.  There are so many directions to go, so much to see, and to decide and to figure out. What will you study?  What career will you pursue?  And a favorite interview question, what will you do with the travel opportunity of the Flinn Scholarship?  These are meaningful decisions.  And at the same time, they are not as important as they seem.  There is something more important, more urgent.  Needing your attention, but easily overlooked.  Easily missed in the bustle of all there is to accomplish.  It is not something that you’ll put on your CV.  There is no spot for it, but more than ever, we need to be attending to it.

It is the inner journey of life; the only journey that matters in the end; the only path that leads to altruism, compassion, and joy.  It is the journey that leads us to connection to ourselves and others, and to the deep knowing that we are one human family.  Appropriately this inner journey is a primary focus and goal of the Flinn experience.  It is this journey that I will speak about.

It turns out, His Holiness the Dalai Lama already wrote the speech I wanted to make this evening.  I discovered it, in a book I had brought to read on the flight home from Phoenix to Boston in March when I was here to interview all of you.  I had already begun contemplating what I would like to say tonight.  And then on the plane home I started reading his book, How to See Yourself as You Really Are.  Then just two weeks ago I had the unusual opportunity to flesh it out at a day long dialogue between the Dalai Lama and prominent thinkers in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, (just the sort of experience that you as a Flinn Scholar will have all the time).  Here are the essential points the Dalai Lama makes: first, “That universal concern is essential to solving global problems.  [Next] That love and compassion are the pillars of world peace…. [Last]  That each individual has a responsibility to shape institutions to serve the needs of the world.”  (1)

The wish to solve global problems and the wish for world peace are popular concerns, and are growing more urgent every day.  Many of you wrote in your application essays of your desires to forge solutions to global problems.  It is tempting to think that we can do this through ever more advanced technologies, more science, and better economic policies.  These are all useful endeavors.  But to quote further the Dalai Lama, “There is no doubt about our collective progress in many areas-especially science and technology–but somehow our advances in knowledge are not sufficient.  Basic human problems remain.  We have not succeeded in bringing about peace, or in reducing overall suffering.”  (2)

His answer, and ours, is the cultivation of altruism and compassion.  This is not an original idea.  Altruism and compassion are ancient, deeply engrained human values, though they seem to have been obscured and devalued in the name of progress, advancement, and development.  In terms of evolutionary neurobiology as outlined by George Vaillant, “For protection, modern humans survived not just through ‘selfish genes’ and the survival of the fittest, but also by transcending self-interest in the service of others.” (3)  This is the definition of altruism.  We are hard wired for interconnection.  Hard wired to notice the distress of others, and feel the wish to relieve it (the definition of compassion).  We Homo sapiens have massive brains.  According to Vaillant, “Arguably, no organ in the history of life has evolved faster.” (4)  The cost is interdependence, and the need for altruism and compassion.  If only we learned to see this as the wonder it is, instead of something to be overcome.  To quote another illustrious fellow, “we get to carry each other….[It’s] One Life.” (5) (That’s Bono).

But quotes and words don’t do it- all the learning in the world won’t get us there.  This deeply felt connection isn’t a left brain experience.  It’s a limbic brain (the “primitive brain”) experience; it’s an inner knowing not amenable to language.  It’s not an experience you’ll learn sitting in a classroom.  But it is an experience we all know inwardly.  It’s mainly a matter of attending to the experience and cultivating our capacity for it.  This is the inner journey.
 
In case world peace is not a convincing enough ideal, let’s appeal to the concept of enlightened self-interest.  It turns out altruism and compassion are good for us.  The last decade has brought an explosion in the medical literature on altruism and its health benefits.  Compassion is now being studied by psychologists and neuroscientists.  (This was unheard of when I was a Flinn Scholar, and even a medical student.)  People who cultivate compassion and altruism are subjectively happier.

The cultivation of both compassion and altruism lead to joy.  Joy is also getting more press in recent years.  In the evolving field of positive psychology, Barbara Fredrickson developed a theory which states, “certain discrete positive emotions including joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love- although phenomenologically distinct, all share the ability to broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources.”  (6) In other words joy makes us resilient.  It also helps us feel more connected to others, and therefore more compassionate and altruistic…and so the cycle continues.

As you embark on your new journey as Flinn Scholars, in connection to this wonderful and rich community, I invite you to consider taking up the inner journey.  Congratulations again.  It has been a true joy for me to be here with you.  Thank you.

P.S.
I suspect John Murphy knows something about all of this.  For 28 years John has led the Flinn Foundation in its altruistic efforts, shaping this institution to meet the needs of the world.  You can see in his face, that it has brought him much joy.  John, on behalf of myself, and the first generation of Flinn Scholars, (we’ll call ourselves the Murphy generation) I want to express deep gratitude to you, and to wish you even more joy in the next phase of your life. 


Sources:

1. His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), How to See Yourself as You Really Are (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 3.

2. His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), How to See Yourself as You Really Are (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), pp. 1-2.

3. George E. Vaillant, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 45.

4. George E. Vaillant, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 43.

5. Bono, One (New York: Island Records, 1991).

6. Barbara L. Frederickson, “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” American Psychologist 56 (2001):219.