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The spice of life
I am a cancer survivor. Twice, actually—as if I didn’t get the message the first time about the sanctity of life.
Both times I knew that I had a really bad kind of cancer, because the doctors would avert their eyes while talking to me. They finally decided to give me as much chemotherapy as I could endure, then stand back and hope that that would do the trick. Hope.
So, every three weeks, I would go to this big, forbidding hospital, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and spend five days and nights hooked to an IV that was filled with chemotherapy drugs and pretty much anything else that was lying around: Drano, Liquid-Plumr, bourbon. It made me violently ill and, of course, killed my appetite.
But while I was living in the cancer ward, surrounded by people who were very sick—dying, even—I found myself becoming obsessed with, of all things, an olive. I had never given much thought to the olive, but now that I was too sick to have one, I really, really wanted an olive.
Age-old symbol of peace and security: I remembered the story in the Bible, of a dove returning to Noah’s boat with an olive branch in its beak, signaling that land was near, that the flooding was at an end. I remembered Thanksgiving when I was a child. Amid all the dysfunction and quarreling, there would be this moment when we all ate olives—a small taste of peace.
Finally, when the nausea had passed and I thought I could handle one, I bit into an olive.
I tasted the saltiness of the earth. I tasted past and present.
I tasted connection.
I tasted energy, wonder—aliveness, if that’s a word (we’ll have to ask the Jesuits).
It was as though God had reached down from the sky and slapped poor Danny Barry upside the head, to say: Now do you get it?
I guarantee you, there will be times over the next four years when you will want to be out of here. You will be sick of how your roommate snores, you will be sick of the smell of burned popcorn, you will just be sick of all of it. On a cold February night, perhaps, you’ll be trudging through snow to the library, to write a paper for a class that you hate—and you will want to be out of here.
When this happens, I want you to fill your lungs with that crisp New England air. I want you to hear the distinctive crunch of your feet on snow. I want you to feel the wind slapping at your face.
It is holy. It is an olive. It is your now.
Everyone here—everyone—will experience disappointment. At some point, you will feel like a failure. Parts of your life will not turn out as you hope. There will be pain; that is part of life.
The challenge for you is not, necessarily, to play ball some day in Fenway Park, or anything metaphorically like that. It is to seek communion with one another. It is to do honor to the talents that you have received, by trying—always trying. And to find your passion.
It is to learn to be in the moment. To embrace the now. To bite into an olive and taste the world. A world that you will set aflame.
So here is my gift to the Class of 2016: a jar of olives. But you’re going to have to share.
Dan Barry is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who writes the “This Land” column for the New York Times. On September 13 he gave the First Year Academic Convocation address to freshmen in Conte Forum. His most recent book—Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (2011)—was required summer reading for incoming students. This essay is drawn and adapted from his talk.