“I saw how we are equally our language and our mortal physical bodies.”
When I first arrived at Amherst College, having applied “early decision” and been miraculously admitted, I made my way straight to Memorial Hill, feeling queasy and excited at once. Here I am, I announced to myself. But what, exactly, was I doing here? As I gazed out tentatively—or, one might say, indecisively—at the unbounded view of the Holyoke Range, with the contained quad bordered by its tidy red-brick buildings behind me, I experienced the first of many seeming conflicts that my Amherst education was about to propose I consider.
More practical questions soon bubbled up in my consciousness: Would I study here the luminous poetry of Dickinson, Frost and Merrill, or take a heavy load of premed courses? Would I rush a fraternity and carouse anti-intellectually in one of the stately houses that ringed the campus, or venture further afield and fall in with a much-too-virtuous hipster vegetarian co-op?
My panic grew; nausea overtook exuberance. Had I come to Amherst to explore my incipient yet still half-submerged identities as a Latino gay man, or instead to hone myself with a kind of Calvinist missionary zeal into some model citizen, a card-carrying member of the elite professional class? Perhaps this liberal arts college I had so idealized—and what in God’s name were “the liberal arts” anyway?—where I would somehow discover myself was just a fantasy, a mirage, as fleeting as the lives of these war heroes, names engraved in stone before me, who never enjoyed such privilege as to so deliberately decide their fates.
If Amherst College has taught me one thing, it is that such questions almost never lead to the strict dichotomies they might at first suggest. The truth that I live every day as a physician-poet and queer Latinx-American is that our humanity is ever-hyphenated, various, recombinant and resistant to rigid definition. My liberal arts education taught me how to open up our perennial questions into something more like invitations to discourse, and to embrace our myriad contradictions as opportunities for creativity and invention and engagement.
My freshman Introduction to Liberal Studies seminar course, for example, whose racy, sexy title “Race and Sex” promised to my then-puerile imagination an X-rated mash-up involving fast cars and hot bodies (it was the ’80s), turned out to be a deep, interdisciplinary examination of some of the key aspects of myself and those around me I had so long feared divided us more than in fact bound us together in shared, complex narratives of relative power and oppression. Juxtaposing the genetics of race and gender with the genesis of racism and sexism revealed the productive synergies of wide-ranging investigation; science was not faultlessly objective, I realized, nor was art inerrantly beautiful. By the time I took organic chemistry, I was accustomed to writing short essays in response to science exam questions that placed synthesis reactions in the context of real-world problems, having never seen a lead pencil and multiple-choice test handed out during finals.
My Amherst professors embodied a similar diversity of ways of being in and knowing about the world that also challenged facile notions of the “two cultures” as posited by C.P. Snow in his famous (albeit, to my reading, somewhat cantankerous) Cambridge lectures from a generation earlier. The humanities and the sciences spoke eloquently to one another at Amherst, in the classroom as much as in the faculty dining hall. I thrilled to the kinds of questions posed by my professors—from Amrita Basu to William Pritchard, Lisa Raskin to Antonio Benitez-Rojo, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Stephen George. Their questions seemed always like encouragements to think aloud alongside them more than prompts for answers that surely anyone of intelligence would know by the time they arrived at college.
They supported me in my decision not to decide between neuroscience and English and to major in both instead, as they wondered with me about how understanding the neural underpinnings of language and voice might offer novel insights into narrative and poetry. I remember another kind of generous welcoming, too, just as instructive: Professors George and Raskin once invited me to cook a Cuban meal together with them. On the menu I planned was ropa vieja, Spanish for “old clothes,” which is shredded beef in a spicy tomato-based sauce; as we analyzed the recipe, chopping careful proportions of peppers and onions in surroundings that vaguely reminded me of home, we duly noted the metaphor in the dish’s name, which surely did resemble piled-up rags as I served it over steaming white rice.
In addition to fathoming metaphor with scientists in the laboratory of a kitchen, I also learned about the equation of love from a poet and professor of English. Ever since I had first imagined I might someday become a physician, and began studying the science required for medical school, I was troubled by what seemed something fundamental about me that I couldn’t square with the textbook biology I was being taught in high school: As a man, how could I be sexually attracted to other men?
Science was not faultlessly objective, I realized, nor was art inerrantly beautiful.”
This question was not merely another either/or with an expected correct answer; it was also expressly forbidden even to ask in my Catholic upbringing. I had no notion whatsoever of what kind of life I might have, or if I could even have a life, on the wrong side of that binary. Yet, appropriately enough, during orientation weekend at Amherst, I met the man with whom I have gone on to spend the past 35 years of our lives. As an Amherst junior finally I came out, first to Professor Sedgwick, who met my emotional turmoil with an equanimity that would have made Sir William Osler proud. “Of course I can understand how you could be so fond of Jorge,” she murmured. “Love is love, dear.”
That simplest of equations formulated in the wisdom of the human heart, one no science had yet worked out, proved to save my life. That most humane of algorithms continued to guide me at the height of the AIDS pandemic, during my residency training years later, as I comforted men my age as they died, with no high-tech medicines to cure them. As I marched in the streets of San Francisco chanting “Silence equals death!” in community with others, I saw how we are equally our language—our voices, our poetry and our stories, those transcendent products of the synaptic networks of our brains—and our mortal physical bodies.
When I think now about what it means to be a healer as we confront the next pandemic, my patients once again silenced by endotracheal tubes that ironically help them to breathe, I remember it was at Amherst College that I first learned our mysterious humanity can never be entirely explicated by our fascinating physiology or even our elegant genetics, and that the hardest questions about us require only the embrace of our empathetic imaginations as response.
At her moving convocation address in 2011, our then-new president, Biddy Martin, invoked the words of esteemed Professor Benjamin DeMott, from his essay “English and the Promise of Happiness”:
DeMott tells us that the English class, “is the place … wherein the chief matters of concern are the particulars of humanness: individual human feeling, human response and human time, as these can be animated with the help of writing … and discovered by student writers seeking through words to name and compose and grasp their own experience.”
Central to DeMott’s and Martin’s idea of Amherst is colloquy, sharing ourselves through language, the learning that takes place and the pleasure that arises in the rich conversations between faculty and students, between the humanities and the sciences, and between the College community and the larger world in which we are situated. These days, we have a glorious new Science Center at the College, linked to the Mead Art Museum by a stunning Greenway, continuing these conversations even in the geography of the campus, ever a space where we can experience the full breadth of “human feeling, human response and human time.”
I returned to Amherst recently as part of a shameless recruitment effort, with my husband beside me and our college-bound 17-year-old nephew in tow. As we traversed the Greenway and climbed past the old Merrill Science Center to reach Memorial Hill and that beloved vista, I thought of a poem of Emily Dickinson’s I first read in a poetry workshop that gathered, as often as not, in the middle of the quad, our voices mingling with the rustle of leaves and the calls of birds:
I reason, Earth is short—
And many hurt,
But, what of that?
I reason, we could die—
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay.
But, what of that?
I reason, that in Heaven—
Somehow, it will be even—
Some new Equation, given—
But, what of that?
For a long time, I read this poem as a startling dismissal of arrogant science in the guise of “reason” from the perspective of the sagacious poet who knows human suffering defies explanation. The futility of our relentless questioning rang in my ear with the almost flippant, ostensibly unfeeling and thus damning refrain, “But, what of that?” Back then, all those hours spent laboring in biochemistry labs and memorizing the Krebs cycle could seem pointless under the towering trees and the dappled sunlight they let fall on us; our time on Earth seemed short indeed, and our “Anguish—absolute—,” unyielding, frozen in perpetuity by those arresting dashes.
As I reflected for a moment, so many years later, looking out at the same view, sharing this memory with Jorge and our nephew, I suddenly realized that the questions we were asking, now as then, weren’t futile at all. In our exchange of ideas, as our words joined us as fellow human beings, once connecting Dickinson and my poetry workshop, and now again Jorge and me and our nephew, I learned something new about the poem: in concluding it with the same question she seems to disdain, and not its elusively true answer, the poet brilliantly celebrates both our keen curiosity and our common humanity.
The “Equation, given” is the same one that I learned right here and that I am still learning, one that at once humbles and heightens reason. Her ironic answer-in-the-question is akin to what about Amherst College most endures in me: the quest for knowledge for the promise and the awe of it, yes, but inspired and made meaningful by the love of our bewildering humanity. Let us all keep asking the unanswerable questions, and let the conversation continue.
Campo teaches and practices internal medicine at Harvard and serves as Poetry Section editor for JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. He is the award-winning author of numerous books of poetry and essays, most recently Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems 1994–2016. Amherst awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2004.
Photograph by Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe/Getty Images