Julia Louis Dreyfus Goes Beyond Pink
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been in the news a lot recently, both to celebrate her Emmy win for Veep and to share her fight against breast cancer with the world. Since October is breast cancer awareness month, I have been reflecting on the many women who face this difficult battle, and how strong, vibrant, and multifaceted they are. These women do not let their battle define them, so I will not let it define Julia Louis-Dreyfus, either. While I have long enjoyed her acting, Julia Louis-Dreyfus became a real person to me, a person whose full name I continue to use, when she spoke at my college graduation ten years ago.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a long relationship with my alma mater, Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL. She was a student there until she dropped out to focus on acting (luckily for all of us); her son is currently on the basketball team; and she received an honorary degree when she was our graduation speaker in 2007.
As you might imagine, Julia was both funny and thoughtful as she delivered her address. She was appropriately self-deprecating, joking about the fact that she hadn’t actually graduated from Northwestern. She described the bold life choices she’d made to work her way up in the comedy world, first through Chicago’s Second City and eventually joining the cast of Saturday Night Live as the youngest female cast member in the program’s history! As most graduation speakers do, Julia told us some clichés to be bold and to take control of our destinies. However, this was not the true focus of her talk.
Her speech focused on kindness. Specifically, if I am remembering correctly, she advised, “don’t be an a**” (simple yet difficult advice for some of my peers). While speaking to a group of graduates who were imagining their big and hopeful futures, she told us not to forget simple little acts of kindness. While we all hope that some people in my graduating class devote themselves to curing disease, bringing world peace, or ending hunger, Julia focused her message on our daily lives and what we can do to be sure that we leave the world better than we found it. Through kindness and thoughtfulness, whether we are bankers, store employees, or stay-at-home parents, we can have a positive impact on the world around us.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus also brought a gift for each of us – a CFL lightbulb. She asked all of us to use it instead of one of the incandescent bulbs likely filling our homes at the time, as a small step to reduce energy use. It was an example of what she was asking us to do: make the small extra effort to do the right thing. A large number of small efforts will have a huge impact.
While her words were not novel, they were very well-timed. I suppose it is appropriate that one of comedy’s great actresses would be good with timing! My family felt that, unlike most graduations, they really enjoyed the speaker. Today, whenever I think of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, my first thought is, “she gave me a lightbulb!” An odd thought for such a famous and talented comedian, but I think it speaks to the significance of her message.
As I return from my ten-year reunion, I hope that message resonated with others the way it did with me; that every once in a while, my classmates and fellow alums think about it and do something nice as a result. My heart goes out to Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the battle she faces against breast cancer, but I know that the number of survivors are growing and I look forward to counting her among them in the future.