Wisdom for an Uncertain Time: Contemplating, Science, Health and Public Service

Former Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy 

During the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic, we look back to the reassuring words and calm wisdom of Washington Week 2017 keynote speaker Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. A holistic philosophy and deep passion for public service were central to the presentation by the soft-spoken, self-effacing 39-year old, who came to the podium as the youngest person and the first Indian American ever appointed to the position of Surgeon General.

Alluding to his glowing introduction by 2017 Massachusetts delegate Sara Hogenboom, he observed that what you don’t often hear about a speaker’s life “are the challenging points, the low points, the times of uncertainty.” How you deal with those moments is key throughout your life, he explained.

Dr. Murthy with USSYP 2017 Massachusetts delegates Sara Hogenboom and Tony Shu

Dr. Murthy offered advice for handling the unexpected events that confound us and throw us off course, such as what we are experiencing right now. He offered that when faced with tough decisions or roadblocks, allowing time to contemplate is crucial. “I want to emphasize to you that it is those empty spaces in our lives that truly allow our lives to blossom and be full in the long term because that’s when creativity happens. That’s when we have accidents of fate that bring us into contact with unexpected ideas. That’s when you take a turn in life that you may not expect, but may be exactly what you need.”

Dr. Murthy described his childhood in Florida, and the afternoons spent in his parents’ medical clinic that shaped his life’s journey. “I wanted to be able to contribute to alleviating suffering in a tangible and direct way. That’s what inspired me to go into medicine.”  Early on he broadened his interest in medicine to public health. As a young undergraduate at Harvard, Dr.  Murthy co-founded VISIONS Worldwide, Inc., a nonprofit organization that organized HIV/AIDS preventive education and empowerment programs in India and the United States. Two years later, he also co-founded Swasthya, a community health partnership to promote basic health education, clinical care and social support in Sringeri, India.

He also emphasized the need for short-term over long-term planning in one’s personal life, and that being open to taking risks allowed him to find his true path. “We think often about our three or five or 10-year plan, and while that is good to think about, that can’t come at the expense of completely losing fulfillment in what you are doing now,” he counseled. “When you are engaged in doing work that is fulfilling to you, that is when you are most creative. That’s when your best ideas come out. That’s when you can contribute the most to the world.”

After taking many questions, the then-Surgeon General left the delegates with inspiring words, “I see in you the hope that this country desperately needs, and I want to tell you that you don’t have to wait to make good on that hope, you can do so through the work you are doing right now.”

Photos by Erin Lubin and Jakub Mosur