BLOOMINGTON, Ill., – Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder asked Illinois Wesleyan
University students to be more inspired than he was in his youth.
“Now, I’m 61, it’s too late for me,” joked Kidder, addressing the IWU President’s
Convocation on Wednesday, Sept. 26, in a speech punctuated with humor and a message
– do what you love and use it to change the world. “For most of you the question of
what you’re going to do with your lives has not been answered, though it is the one
question you cannot stop asking yourself.”
Kidder’s speech, titled “One Way to Live a Meaningful Life,” followed the subject
of his novel Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Could Cure theWorld. The book was the focus of Illinois Wesleyan’s 2007 Summer Reading Program, which
all first-year students were assigned.
“Dr. Farmer’s message, it would seem to me, is a plea that we pay attention to the
world as it really is,” said Kidder, who followed Farmer for several months as the
world-renowned physician worked tirelessly to fight illness and establish “poverty
with dignity” for people in Haiti, Moscow and Peru with clean water, livable housing
and medical attention. “If we see a bag lady or a drunk sleeping in a doorway, our
first reaction is to get as far away from them as we can,” said Kidder. “Farmer’s
message is don’t do that. Don’t join what seems to be America’s collective amnesia to human suffering.”
Telling stories of Farmer’s adventures, Kidder spoke of his eclectic upbringing, his
days among the wealthy at Duke University and his struggles to create Partners In
Health, a not-for-profit organization. Contending that Farmer, with his boundless
energy and determination, is unique, Kidder still believes he is an inspiration
to guide students not to “forget the forgotten people” of the world.
One story included Farmer volunteering at a hospital in Haiti during his college days.
Trying to help a woman whose pregnant sister was dying because she could not afford
to buy blood for a transfusion, the woman cried out, “Tout moun, se moun,” or we are all human beings. “All day Farmer had felt pulled in different directions
and asking himself, ‘Who should I try to become?’,” said Kidder. “At the young age
of 22, when he heard that woman cry out, he knew it was not enough to be simply an
American or simply a doctor. He knew he had to become part of all humanity.”
Though he professed to have no recipe for a successful life, Kidder encouraged students
to do what they love, and put it to use. “There is no skill you can acquire that can’t
be used in some way to improve the world,” he said. “Each of you are different and
each of you will have to find what you love to do.”
The title of Mountains Beyond Mountains is inspired by the Haitian proverb, “Beyond mountains, there are mountains,” meaning
that as problems are solved, others present themselves. According to Kidder, Farmer
believes if more people from the wealthy nations acknowledge suffering, poverty and
illness around the world, we could treat them as solvable problems. “If everyone was
saying these intolerable problems need to be fixed, then the world would already be
largely different and basically healed,” said Kidder.
Overall, it was Farmer’s curiosity that led him to begin his journey, said Kidder,
pulling him away form the American dream, and instead to the dream of moving mountains.
It is this same curiosity Illinois Wesleyan’s President Richard F. Wilson hoped for
IWU students. “If there is anything we can carry away from today, it is the recognition
that curiosity sometimes can lead to commitment. And those who dedicate themselves
to people across the world in some small way can enrich our own lives,” said Wilson.
While on campus, Kidder also took part in an informal discussion and book signing,
moderated by Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of International
Studies William Munro.