Dr. John Sarno's Commencement Address at Kalamazoo College

In 2000, Dr. Sarno visited his alma mater to give a speech about his unique journey in the medical world. Dr. Sarno himself left college in 1943 to serve in the US Army Medical Department during World War II. In his address to the graduating class of physicians, he shares that his patriotic drive during this time lead him to volunteer for the Air Corps, but his mind and body had other ideas. The title of his speech was "Stronger Than We Think."

A still from the documentary "All The Rage" by Rumor.

In this scene his daughter and Mrs. Sarno state that people approach him all the time saying "you saved my life". Dr. Sarno corrects her by saying "changed [their life]". He was a modest man indeed.

Thank you Dr. Sarno for all the lives you changed saved.


As usual I have to bring these down. You know when I was here in school, if we didn’t hear that train whistle or if it didn’t go off that is in the middle of the night, we’d wake up and say, “what was that?” It was a part of being there in fact in Hoben hall, that’s where I was at that time.

Campus was a little bit different then, the new part of Welles was not here, there was an administration building there, but that wonderful Stetson Chapel was here, and I’m delighted to be here, greetings to you all, all of those that have already been mentioned from this podium. It’s a great honor and privilege to be participating in these commencement festivities.

I would never have dreamed when I was scurrying around this campus, that I would be giving the commencement address one day. Speaking of which, commencement addresses can be beamed to a variety of audiences. Not only the graduates, but to all those assembled, or even to a larger audience if the speaker is a politician or a statesman.

I shall be talking primarily to the graduates, because my wife Martha and my daughter Christina decided that that would be most appropriate. Nothing hen‐pecked about me. But it also made the preparation of this little talk a bit more difficult. I accepted President Jones’s invitation without giving it a second thought. Of course! What wonderful bomb to the ego!

Now I might paraphrase the famous dictum on marriage: Marry in haste and repent in leisure. In other words accept the invitation in haste and struggle with the difficulties of composing the talk at leisure. I composed two talks that I thought were pretty good. Both beamed to a wider audience, both shot down by my family trust, Martha and Christina.

However, they didn’t leave me marooned. Christina, my daughter, being very close to today’s graduates in age, and just finishing her baccalaureate, told me what she’d like to hear. Which prompted me to tell her I couldn’t even remember who delivered the address on my graduation from medical school, and I certainly couldn’t remember a word he said. But then that was a Columbia University affair, many schools besides the school of medicine, so it was a different story.

She asked me about my three years that Kalamazoo College, and I’ve got a surprise from President Jones. I had to admit that I had probably been too immature to get as much out of them academically as a might have. For me, going to college was just like anything you did. Like going to grade school or high school. A career, life, that was all later. I never thought about them though I was aware that some of my classmates were not so airheaded. They knew where they were going and had a pretty good idea how they were going to get there, and you know as I wrote this I was thinking of two people in particular, some of you in the audience may remember Ralph Curmen and Cynthia Earl they got married, they really knew exactly what they were going to do but I didn’t. Which reminds me of an anecdote and the perfect rejoinder that was never made.

Now actually, I have to admit this anecdote has really to do with reminiscing because of the things that went on here. And what it has to do with a performance of Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera, “The Bartered Bride”. Well, when we were preparing for it incidentally we used to refer to it as “The Battered Bird.” Anyway, what—yeah, you know—what really prompted me, I’m glad that I was going to mention this is that in that performance I played the heavy lead, I was the marriage broker, but the romantic lead, the male romantic lead is here today. He’s a former dean of the chapel and his name is Robert Dewey.

So I thought that when—I didn’t know he was going to be here and when I learned he was here I certainly have to tell him about this, what’s the anecdote? The following week I was in Physics class and the building was over there I think, and Dr. Hornbeck asked me a question, and I really didn’t know the answer and Dr. Hornbeck who was a very dry, quiet, restrained man said, “Mr. Sarno, Saturday night you sang for a long time without any words or music in front of you, I wonder why you don’t know the answer to my simple question.”

Well I was mortified, and I didn’t know what to say but talking about now the perfect rejoinder, wouldn’t it be great if I had said, “Gee Dr. Hornbeck maybe I’ll have to put my Physics homework to music.” Yeah. (Gap in the audio) Surprise for Dr. Jones because I never graduated from college.

Listen to this. By May of 1943 there were so few men on campus. I couldn’t stand it. I mean it’s not that the girls—but you get the message. So I enlisted in the army. Being a college boy I was assigned to the medical department. But patriotic fever was sky high in those days, so I volunteered for the Air Corps. That was a mistake. But I didn’t realize it at the time.

As part of the early training we had a few hours in a light plane and I thought that was terrific. But one morning I woke up to find my face almost unrecognizable with giant hives. It was starting to get serious now. Testing revealed that I was allergic to many foods, which was a drag, but there wasn’t much that I could do about it.

We were at the stage of being classified for pilot, navigator, or bombardier training when word came down from on high too many flyboys, everybody admitted to the Air Corps after a certain date had to go back to where they came from. And so back to the medical department I went. I ended up in what is now known as a M.A.S.H unit in Europe but that’s another story.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized what the hives were all about. I may have been allergic to all those foods, but the real reason for the hives was my unconscious. With that my unconscious was allergic to the idea of flying in combat. As soon as I returned to the medical department, the hives disappeared.

My conscious mind told me I wanted to fight Nazis. My unconscious mind was telling me something very different. We really have two minds, you know. Reacting to the things that are going on in our lives and their reactions will usually be totally different.

Consciously we may say, I want to do this, I can handle that, piece of cake, I must do this or I should to that. But the unconscious may be saying never mind, this is too tough, too dangerous, or more likely, too much like work, too uncomfortable or unpleasant. That’s reality. The unconscious is motivated strictly by pleasure. Consciously we want to be nice, do things that will make people like us, unconsciously we say I couldn’t care less about anybody or anything