Remarks by Ibrahim Jadoon ’13 at Honors Convocation 2013
May 7, 2013 By Ibrahim Jadoon ’13
This past Thursday was an interesting anniversary for me. Two years ago, on May 1, 2011, at about 10 p.m., I was working on a paper when a friend texted me. He wrote, “They caught bin Laden; Obama’s going to have a press conference.” I looked online and I found the broadcast. President Obama said, amazingly, we had found him after a decade of searching—and we found him in Pakistan. For those of you who don't know, I was born in Pakistan, in a small mountainous town in the northeast. In fact, Eastern Kentucky’s mountains are what made my dad want to move here, because the hills and mountains reminded him of home.
The broadcast continued. President Obama said, “Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.” When I heard that town’s name, “Abbottabad,” I remember thinking, “Hmm...that doesn’t sound familiar. Gosh, this is a little embarrassing, I don’t even know what province that’s in!” I found a transcript of the speech, hoping it might give a map, but then I saw the town’s name spelled out. President Obama, like most other Americans, pronounced the town’s name as “Uh-bot-a-bod.” But no Pakistani calls that town “Uh-bot-a-bod,” or even “Abbot-a-bad,” even though it’s named after an Englishman named Abbott. In Pakistan, it’s actually pronounced “Abt-ta-bad.” Why do I know all these things about Abottabad? I was born there and our house is about six blocks from bin Laden’s compound.
Of course, it’s an utter coincidence—I just happened to be born there. But that night made me think. I realized I was lucky to be here in the United States. Of course, most people in Abbottabad are wonderful, kind, and peace-loving. I feel confident knowing I would have been brought up well by my loving parents if we had stayed. But this little coincidence, this little connection of my life in Danville, Kentucky, to something quite bigger, reminded me that there was a chance my family might not have moved to the United States. There was a chance I might not have gone to college. There was a chance I might not have met you all.
That night, it seemed like someone suddenly put a mirror in front of me and made me examine myself and how I got to be where I was; it was reflective. I hope everyone has reflective moments like that. But, I realize this example might not be the most relatable. If you’ve ever done service or met someone whose life seemed a little harder than yours—whether here, at home, or abroad—you’ve probably had one of those moments where a mental mirror suddenly appeared. For example, I volunteered at an HIV/TB clinic in South Africa the summer after my first year. On the last day I had an urge—an urge I don’t get that often—to write a poem of sorts. If you’ll indulge me, here’s a little bit of it:
Today, I met a man who had not seen his family in 61 years.
Yesterday, I couldn’t wait to see my family after 4 weeks.
Today, I met a blind woman with diabetes, breast cancer, and hypertension and she greeted me with a smile.
Yesterday, I had trouble getting out of bed.
Today, I met an HIV-positive man who had come to the clinic two days ago with a headache; today, I carried his body into the morgue.
Yesterday, I was afraid to say hello to someone on the sidewalk just in case maybe they wouldn't like me.
These are the types of events we usually associate with reflection, these epiphanies. Ostensibly, moments like that seem few and far between. But the most impactful lesson I’ve learned at Centre is that reflection isn’t tied to “life-changing moments.” Every day is reflect-able and deserves reflection. Why? Because everyone in this room, including me, made somewhere between 70 to 35,000 decisions today (the number varies a little bit depending on what study you look at). I’m not saying that you need to question every decision you make tomorrow—though that might be kind of interesting—but there is plenty to think about, I promise. We decide, and it really is our decision, most of our days. We decide how much time to give ourselves, how we talk to other people, how we think about stress, what we want, what we eat, what’s a priority and what’s something we can leave for later.
For example, one day last semester, I had one of these particularly reflect-able days. I realized that sometimes I felt relieved just to sit alone in my room and simply think. I realized I am an introvert—I kind of like hanging out by myself. I really do recharge when it’s just me alone. Not that you guys aren't cool enough or anything. But through reflection I realized it was perfectly normal that I am an introvert and it wasn’t something to feel guilty about. That’s just me. And that’s a particularly useful example, I think, because it shows that reflection doesn’t always change our actions, but instead can change our thinking.
We, as part of the Centre community, have ready access to one particularly poignant reflection tool—President Roush’s maxim, “Do your best. Be your best. No regrets.” This quote is deeper than I gave it credit for initially; at least for me, now I’ve realized it’s beautifully complex. As a biochemistry and molecular biology major, I like beautifully complex things, trust me. Or maybe I’ve made something simple very complex—something I’m apt to do. But let’s assume for a minute I’m right. Initially, the quote seems like an inspirational proverb, maybe a pick-me-up for a rough day, maybe a boost for finals. It fills that role well, but I think it has quite a bit more to offer. I realized that, if we wanted to frame this quote, we wouldn’t put a picture above it. Instead, we’d put a mirror. It’s a tool to reflect with. Like a good reflection tool, this quote won’t answer many questions, but instead it will make you ask the right ones. Am I happy with how I spend my time? Who am I becoming? Have I done something for myself lately? Can I do everything I want and still be happy? The answer to that one is probably “No,” speaking from personal experience. Did I leave my comfort zone today?
Talking about comfort zones, I went to Air Guitar [an annual party] for the first time a few weeks ago. Hey, I'm an introvert, remember? It was a blast, at least for the 30 minutes I was there. Made me wonder why I didn't go the past three years.
But, sometimes the quote brings up uncomfortable questions. For example, am I a part of a majority, whether by gender, age, income, religion, nationality, race, or hobbies? If so, does that membership give me certain responsibilities? Or maybe does it give me privileges? Or maybe both? Am I a bystander when something wrong happens, from vandalism to gender violence to oppression to disrespect? Am I ethically consistent? Is it acceptable for me to buy things that aren’t produced in a way that respects the workers as human beings? Am I actually obligated to vote? And, this is my favorite “uncomfortable” question because it actually stopped me from procrastinating a few times: “Would the five-year-old-you look up to the person you are now?”
When I came to Centre, I heard and attempted to internalize at least the “no regrets” portion of President Roush’s quote, and I wound up doing lots of unexpected but kind of really cool things. I acted in a YouTube series where I was without a shirt in one scene (ladies: please, see me later); I volunteered at a Vice Presidential Debate; I danced on top of a bar in Turkey (hey, I have a penchant for some of Eminem’s songs); and I mentored a boy at Toliver Elementary School, where I taught him to tell time, and he tried—so hard—to teach me how to throw a spiral.
Internalizing “no regrets” can actually be a communal activity. I discovered a few years ago that older—I mean wiser—people are usually a little better at reflection. Now, I’ve realized that asking someone if they have had any regrets is a rather personal question, but also one that often gives thoughtful advice.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I am some great reflect-er—there have been plenty of times in my life when more reflection would have been well advised. For example, when I decided not to study abroad [the fall term of] my senior year because I was going to apply to medical school, but then I realized mid-summer I didn’t want to go straight to medical school. But it’s okay; I actually really like Danville, Kentucky. Now that I’m getting older, I have begun to reflect more often, and it’s definitely a great thing, so I want to share this slice of happiness with you all. Reflection is simply thinking by yourself and maybe even trying to answer some of the questions that President Roush’s quote invokes. Try putting yourself in a quiet room and see where your mind goes, what mental sentences do you say to yourself—gently question those thoughts. In fact, let’s try this now. Just for a few silent moments, let’s listen to our thoughts.
During one of these quiet moments, I questioned whether “wishing for the weekend” was a good thing—did I really not care about the other 4/7ths of my week? Was that bad? A friend recently said this thought process might be why college seems to go so fast: we want the weekends to come faster and eventually, one day, they do.
I know some of us might already reflect. After all, Centre students are pretty smart. We are the TED talk watchers, the dinner table philosophers, the “let me prove you wrong” debaters—though, on some days, the hard-core procrastinators. But, after reflecting, I’ve realized I should reflect even more! I reckon our lives and the world would be better off if we spent a little more time reflecting and a little less time doing “things.” A Buddhist monk advised me during a dinner my first year [at Centre] that I should be more mindful—meaning I should fully experience the present moment. I should feel my body sitting in a chair, the up-and-down cadence of my professors, the whiteness of the clouds, the pressure in my feet when I walk. This mindfulness is cultivated through reflection and internalization of President Roush’s quote.
A few weeks ago, I read a list of the most common regrets of the dying, as recorded by a hospice nurse. The number one regret of the dying, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Those people with that regret are probably the same people who kept thinking, “Well, I’ll reflect tomorrow. I don’t have time to seriously reflect today.” Let me repeat the quote: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Well, if that doesn’t take reflection, I don’t know what does.
After so-called “turning points” in our lives, we usually ask “What if?” What if my parents hadn’t reflected thoughtfully about their lives and stayed in Pakistan? What if I had been born in another town? What if I never visited South Africa? But, we can ask the same “what if” questions about our lives every day: What would happen if I left my comfort zone? What would happen if I made tomorrow the best day it could be?
Thank you, the individuals who make up Centre College and make it what it is. I’d like to end with a quote: “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip? Yo.”
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Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.