A Kind Punch in the Nose

By

Leonard Zwelling

            It’s
not graduation season any longer. Nonetheless, on July 31 the NY Times
published a commencement speech by author George Saunders given at Syracuse
University last spring. Here’s the link:

http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/?_r=0

            It
is worth reading for the advice in it is rather eternal and applicable to all
of us whether we are about to graduate or not. In the essay, Saunders discusses
his regrets in life and puts on the top of his list, not being sufficiently
kind. His explanation is that as we progress through life, we become less and
less self-centered and more able to extend kindness to others. We come to
appreciate others more as we age and in that process leave room in our own
lives for the concerns of other people which is at the root of any kindness. He
does not suggest that in becoming less selfish we take ourselves less
seriously. Rather he suggests the mindful approach to the reality of life’s
transient nature and our individual unimportance to the universe can lead
directly to acts of kindness and a better world. He just adds that young people
need to hurry up this process.

            This
resonated with me because when we got to Texas in 1984, I couldn’t believe how
kind everyone was, especially here at Anderson. I can assure you the default
mode of most people in Houston is not that of New Yorkers or people living in
Washington, DC. Not only is Texas outwardly warm, people actually practice
kindness. This was very true at Anderson. Walter Hittleman created a place for
me in his lab while my equipment was being ordered. Mike Siciliano helped me
find and use a liquid scintillation counter. The Leukemia Service invited me to
talk and treated me like everyone else. It was rough, but I was accepted. There
were many other countless acts of kindness that made us feel that at MD
Anderson and in Houston, Texas, we had found a home.

            Unfortunately,
I don’t think this is the case any longer. MD Anderson has morphed from a
collegial group of faculty and staff dedicated to fighting cancer to a
corporate behemoth focused on curing cancer at all costs, including the loss of
civility and collegiality. Where once we were all pulling in one direction, now
we compete for everything: space, slots, money, patients. What happened and
why?

            My
blog about inflection points identified the moments that critically determined
the manner in which MD Anderson would progress with time and unlike the human
life described by Saunders, it was not from selfishness to kindness.  If anything, it went the other way.

            

            So
that leaves two questions: do we want to go back to a gentler, kinder MD
Anderson and, if so, how do we get there?

            For
that I refer you to Peggy Noonan’s column on Saturday, August 10 in the Wall
Street Journal that describes how the Obama team secured the support of the
middle class during the 2012 election cycle despite the rich getting richer and
the poor gaining more entitlements during the first Obama term. The Obama team
realized that they couldn’t win on the economy alone, but had to vilify a rich
guy. And there one was—Mitt Romney. The Democrats started very early bashing
Romney with punch after punch in his political nose. Then the Republicans
helped by nominating him.

            Jim
Messina, Obama campaign manager is quoted as saying that Mike Tyson was his
favorite political philosopher. Tyson said: “everyone has a plan until you
punch him in the face. Then they don’t have a plan anymore”. In 2012, Obama
punched first and hard and then won as the Romney wheels came off before they
even left the tarmac.

            If
we really want to reacquire the kindness that was MD Anderson, we are going to
have to interrupt the plans of others who feel differently. But that will only
happen if the MD Anderson faculty decides to really get in the ring and punch.
So far, all I have seen is political flailing in the face of outright bullying.
Bullies only understand one thing—a punch in the nose. When, people, when?

Leonard Zwelling