Social Commentary by: Richard G. Wendel MD. MBA
In High School English the students read Ivanhoe a book written by Sir Walter Scott. This lead to a discussion of King Arthur’s Court and the Round Table that King Arthur had designed as ‘round’ to signify equality. To be a knight in King Arthur’s Court you had to accept the Code of Chivalry that included honor, honesty, valor and loyalty. The book Ivanhoe also stimulated a discussion about the Search for the Holy Grail from which Christ drank wine at the Last Supper. The Holy Grail was a symbol of Christian salvation and eternal life. It was associated with spiritual purity, the second coming of Christ and the ‘rapture’ at some later date when the saved righteous would be carried away to heaven.
The teacher also raised the question “what does it means to “lose yourself, to find yourself”. I was a bit young to understand this phrase but as an impressionable teenager, eager to comprehend the meaning of life, I gave the question considerable thought. My Christian upbringing and the idealism of youth also fueled my interest, especially since losing yourself in the search for the Holy Grail bestowed eternal life.
But what does ‘losing yourself to find yourself’ really mean? It sounds noble and pure enough. Since I was raised in an advantaged home I had a broad range of opportunities in which ‘to find myself’. That is, assuming I was of good moral character and willing to work hard. But it also made me wonder, what if I were disadvantaged and raised in poverty without opportunity? If that were the case you might literally be lost and might even be faced with the sole option of finding yourself within a culture of poverty, drug addiction and at best a minimum wage menial job. And for that matter, didn’t Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo find themselves by losing themselves in the spoils of war and dictatorship?
Over time I began to question this notion about “losing yourself to find yourself.” Looking at the issue critically, I began to believe that ‘losing yourself’ might prevent you from enjoying the great intellectual diversity and abundance of this life. A number of my friends have been swept up by a crusade or special set of beliefs that seem extreme and that they steer into all discussions. Often these dogmatic views stifle the conversation and preclude information exchange in a civil manner. For instance, when you are at the bridge table discussing the current events of the day and one of your bridge partners open the discussion with “President Obama is a communistic Muslin who was not born in the USA” or “the Republicans are all misogynistic and racist,” you quickly realize that the conversation is going nowhere; at least not in a tolerant and conciliatory frame if you plan to have a pleasant afternoon of bridge.
In general, individuals that are total disciples of this or that cause are a pretty dull lot and trying to meet them half way with thoughtful conversation usually deteriorates into an outburst that amplifies their viewpoints. It is the old story; don’t bother me with the facts and statistics because they probably are alternate facts and made up statistics. It is quite obvious that there are no simplistic solutions to the complex problems facing contemporary societies. We live in confusing times where tolerance is in short supply and the issues are made difficult due to the myriad of variables.
In 1964 Barry Goldwater in his campaign for President made the statement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I voted for Goldwater and thought this quote as insightful at the time. Now I think extremism is a vice as it leaves little wiggle room to be a compassionate human that sees issues from all sides and works for the common good as opposed to the objectives of the hardcore believers.
Certainly some moral and social issues are straight forward and no caring or ethical person would promote slavery, drug trafficking, rape, homicide, lynching and so on. Fortunately, our social and moral fabric have recognized the lesser but still egregious abuses and taken proscriptive action over time as is exemplified by the recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the #Me Too ‘Silence Breaker’s’ movements. Although some issues with discrimination, abusive behaviors and social justice remain, the nation has come a long ways since I was a teenager in the 1950s.
In that speech Barry Goldwater went on to say “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. Today, that quote seems to be the overriding idea behind many movements and belief systems such as Prolife, ProChoice, NRA, Alt Right, Alt Left and sadly both major political parties in Washington. Indeed, moderates are fading as a species and centrist viewpoint no longer seem a viable political option. That is because you must follow the money from special interests or power brokers if you wish to win the primary against a fellow politician, then plug into the party’s coffers and be reelected. Our politicians can be compared to alcoholics that attend AA programs to stay dry and know that drinking in moderation will cause a total relapse. Alcoholism is like political polarity and the party line; there is nothing in between being either on the wagon or a drunk.
From the perspective of social change, adamantine views frustrate solutions to social problems. How do you address teenage pregnancy, major birth defects and unwanted children when you are a devout advocate against abortion and hold the belief that a fertilized human egg has all of the rights of a newborn viable baby? How do you reconcile the ethical dilemma of late-term abortion performed on a normal viable fetus when you are prochoice? How do you legislate a rational gun policy and mitigate the number of suicides, murders and terrorist attacks when you adhere to the dogma of the NRA and vote against legislations that would permit research on gun ownership? How do you address the issues with Dreamers, illegal aliens, Muslims and refugees when you are a member of the Alt Right that wish to seal the borders and American society? How do you negotiate capitalistic values versus socialism and communism when you are a member of the Alt Left? And how do you just instill a small sense of civility, bipartisanship and cooperation into the operations of the Federal Government when moderates are an endangered species?
The media does not help with this extremism. Sensationalism and the dramatic spin applied to the news make better material for talk radio and social media than the bland commentary of good deeds, the common good and community benefit. Fake news, issue spin and slanted media coverage rules the airwaves and 15 second sound bites or 280 character tweets mold the opinions of the electorate that in most cases is not very discerning of the true picture behind these snapshots. I greatly respect our elected officials and feel quite certain that there are many moderate voices in Washington that become corrupted by extremism due to campaign finance, cronyism and the heavy burden of uncertainty and unadulterated group think.
President Donald Trump is hard to categorize on the spectrum of losing and finding yourself. I think it is fair to say he has ‘lost himself and found himself’ in his self-absorption and self-enrichment. He is a pawn to his narcissistic instincts and although his tweets are designed to hold his Populist base together, his real interests lie in hobnobbing with the rich and famous and showing off his power and “good brain” by undoing the policies of his predecessors. From a psychiatrist’s point of view his diagnosis could fall under many headings such as narcissistic, sociopathic, hypomanic and ADD disorder. His callousness and unapologetic nature suggests that like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz he needs to go to the Wizard for a heart.
In many cases, positions of power and control are held by sociopathic individuals who lack a moral compass. This attribute if it has an added degree of paranoia makes for a formidable politician that can take either side of an issue with equal aplomb. This injects some uncertainty in the legislative process and without a beacon of consistency in your superior’s position, the subordinates or in this case the two political parties is hampered in behaving in a cooperative or bipartisan manner. How do you mediate or negotiate when you are uncertain of the position of your leader? To survive and maintain a semblance of integrity, you remain silent and accept the unrelenting gridlock and dysfunction that flows across the organization or political entitie.
As Lincoln said “God must have loved poor people because he made so many of them” and, at present, Washington is maintaining this status quo even as we are the wealthiest nation on earth. The American dream achieved through industry and ingenuity must be kept alive but how does this reconcile with a childhood poverty rate of 21%, miserable healthcare statistics and the fact that the richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Adam Smith is quoted as saying “The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations.” In my opinion, I don’t believe the poor lack motivation; I think they lack opportunity. Isn’t Government entrusted with the responsibility to provide the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of its citizens?’ How does the wealth of a few who have ‘lost themselves to find themselves’ in their economic prowess trickle down to the disadvantaged and how does this represent our national best interests. Furthermore, how do you ‘find yourself’ or achieve your greatest potential when you are raised in poverty
All management and leadership programs stress activities such as teamwork, sensitivity, incremental change and continuous process improvement. And in family affairs tolerance, caring and compromise is the glue that leads to a warm and cohesive family. And diversity training is featured in all leadership programs, board retreats, religious services and public education. Tolerance, understanding and win-win negotiations are preached in every bloody pulpit throughout our great land. But how does this translate to public good?
Our children are raised to succeed, but at what cost? The competition to score well on the SAT and ACT and to get into an elite university is fierce. Increasingly, the advantaged kids with conscientious parents, good school systems, safe neighborhoods and high aspirations are harnessed to the power structure of money, enterprise and control. To compete, they must lose themselves to find themselves in career pathways determined by our universities that have transitioned away from the Liberal or liberating arts into a myriad of specialized departments with focused curriculums that are foisted on even freshman students. Even as today’s youth are more into community service and a balance between career, family and pleasure, for many the competitive forces positively magnetize their orientation toward success at any cost without much regard for values and other kids on the block.
Unlike when I was a kid, aspiring student athletes today need to lose themselves in a single sport to find themselves on the team. This allows no time for gifted athletes to letter in multiple sports. For instance, in tennis to be ranked you must play in USTA sanctioned tournaments and, as strange as this seems, this often preempts playing high school tennis for the best players. To get a tennis scholarship to a Level I or II college you must be willing to play tennis year around for 3-4 hours per day. This begs the question, isn’t university’s primarily role to educate our young people? Moreover, the costs to achieve a high USTA ranking as a rising tennis star are considerable and, on average, about $15,000 per year when you include racquets, restringing, new tennis shoes every 3-4 weeks, entrance fees, travel expense and professional coaches. And, in general, the parents must become helicopter bystanders in the tennis program and do the signups for tournaments, carpooling and live the consuming thrill of victories and agonies of defeat. Less than a hundred male tennis stars on the professional tour make a comfortable living. And at the end of the day, many if not most student athletes really do ‘lose themselves’ as they burn out, sustain injuries that linger and fruitlessly pursue blind ending career pathways in the sports sectors.
The entertainment value and marketing of sports attracts big dollars. Extensive news coverage is given to sports even on the middle and high school level. But, all of this commercialization corrupts and detracts from the pure fun that the student athlete might enjoy in a more social and less competitive environment. In the good old days, we learned sports by just participating, enjoying and competing. We didn’t take a bunch of lessons and follow a rigorous training schedule. Leisurely riding you bikes in the neighborhood was great fun.
Brain function is very complicated. We do know that the amygdala which is an almond shaped nucleus in the temporal lobe is primarily responsible for the fight or flight reflex that regulates emotions and survival instincts and that the hippocampus is the memory unit. In addition the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe houses the control panel of our personality that exerts the chief executive function and is the final pathway in how we behave.
Our scientific knowledge about how the brain works is quite rudimentary but, biologically there is a tug of war between the lower centers of our animal brains where survival instincts reside and the higher centers where socialization and civility occur. Despite most human’s mask of calm and stability, most men and women live a life of quiet desperation. This internal emotional turmoil is one reason why, as humans, we like certainty, and structure and predictability in our lives. Ambiguity is threatening and a common strategy to avoid ambiguity is to adopt a simplistic uncluttered perspective unconditionally. Just as the individual cells in our bodies are engineered to maintain homeostasis; our minds are also oriented to stability, certainty and reassurance. All generations fondly look back at the so called good old days when life seemed so secure and uncomplicated and we try to duplicate this tranquility in the present tense.
Whether we like it or not, as human we all must accept the fact that we are mortal beings just like other animals. And as rational human beings, this reality instills a constant uneasiness about the insecurities of living and the frailty of our physical bodies. For this reason, most all world religions have crafted a metaphysical explanation about the universe that gives reassurances about life after death and provides a more permanent meaning to our existence. Additionally, for these beliefs to satisfy the deep seated needs of the faithful followers they must be absolute and plausible. To achieve this threshold, the religious philosophy must produce a value system that sorts out the deserving versus the undeserving and the winners and losers in the claim for heavenly real-estate. This creates a dilemma because there are many different religious philosophies that have differing ways of meeting these same expectations. How do you reconcile these differences while still maintaining the cardinal beliefs within each religion? What seems to be the common solution to these differences is ongoing tribal warfare and mayhem. And the Infallibility of religious beliefs is a major source of extremism and true believers lose themselves and find themselves in their beliefs.
Today with globalization and migration a major challenge for societies is how to bridge the cultural divides and mitigate the upheaval when societies try to integrate competing values and belief systems. Unfortunately, each cultural need to have a lock on special metaphysical knowledge that is usually exclusive rather than inclusive with the scriptures defining the good guys and the bad guys or the winners and the losers. Thus, from a human perspective even though all of us are made from the same ‘dust’ and are in this same boat together with similar emotions and problems, unyielding moral codes take over that trump acceptance of competing viewpoints. Thus religion becomes a zero sum game with the polarization of good and evil. And with life after death and Heaven, Hell or Nirvana on the line, it hard to ignore the end game and lose yourself in fixed belief systems.
When you discuss religion with Christian creationists and those that interpret the bible literally it is apparent that they have ‘found themselves’ and do not wish to be sidetracked with a discussion about science. And to many Christians, the ascent with the ‘rapture’ will chose the winners and losers. And if you go to an Islamic Madrasa School that uses the Koran as the textbook that divides humanity into believers and infidels, you see an irreconcilable divide that is difficult to combat with reason. Even many atheist and agnostics try to impose their beliefs on others. Finding the Holy Grail of certainty may be ‘losing yourself to find yourself’ but it does not justify the plethora of atrocities of the past to cleanse society of nonbelievers. It is amazing how religion can be both good and evil at the same time. Today, in Islam the Sunnis and the Shia are battling each other over what seems to us Judeo-Christian’s to be a pretty minor technicality in their interpretation of the Koran.
Addiction is another way of ‘losing yourself to find yourself’. When in medical school a field trip took the class to the Lexington Hospital for Drug Addiction. The typical inmate was a young mainliners or IV drug abusers that openly discussed how heroin had become the sole purpose in life on the road to finding themselves by losing themselves. Our current heroin epidemic that causes more overdose fatalities than traffic accidents each year attests to this deep seated need for humans to willingly and intentionally lose themselves; often through addictions. And this occurs even as these anti-social behaviors may be totally self-destructive with a devastating ripple effect on society and families. And the high recidivism rates of drug addiction attest to the strong attraction of temporary fixes that are totally consuming of their freedom and free will.
Of course, there are many addictions and compulsions that are a form of extremism and losing oneself. Sex is a perfectly normal and healthy activity but it epitomizes pleasure and when it becomes an addiction with compulsive masturbation, sexual perversion or the indiscriminate selection of sexual partners its can cause one to lose themselves as well as their marriages and significant relationships. Gambling for affordable stakes can make gaming interesting and intense, but some individuals with susceptible psychological profiles get hooked and extreme in their betting. And gambling loses can and often do bankrupt families and foster criminal activity. Many fitness nuts of course are addicted to extreme diets and manic exercise that may or may not have survival advantage but certainly do not grant immortality. Sadly and tragically, many mental disorders take over the personality and cause loss of self with a limited chance to find oneself including schizophrenia (1% of the population), Bipolar disorder (2 %), Autism (1.5 %), Personality Disorders (.6-9.4 %) and Major Depressive Disorder (1.5%) .
There are innumerable social and ethical causes to capture your focused mind, body and soul on your way to losing yourself. The environmentalist movement to save the planet is very appealing and logical and incorporates real science into a movement. But beliefs about climate change and endangered species are not uniform and the special interests of coal miners, energy producers, fisherman and others push back with a minority viewpoint. Where is the compromise as the environmentalists become adamant and disruptive? Animal activists are also adamant about animal rights and supportive of legal remedies that would lead you to believe that horses, dogs, cats and so on have the same rights as human beings and that we should all become vegetarians and vegans. The devout alt-right comes to blows with the alleged alt-left, and black lives matter advocates are pitted against the police and law enforcement policies. The list of missionary causes is endless in which individuals lose themselves to find themselves. Where does moderation and compromise fit in with extreme viewpoints when there are valid arguments on both sides of the issues?
Extremism has always been and will continue to be pervasive across the globe. There are dozens of countries with authoritarian governments that monopolize power, control the media and suppress dissent. And there is no doubt that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Who would challenge the observation that Kim Jong-un of Korea, Xi Jinping of China, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela or Recep Tayyip Erdo?an of Turkey have found themselves by losing themselves in their quest for power and hegemony. These are blatant examples where “cream like bastards rise to the top” as it pertains to the levers of power.
There is a more insidious type of manipulative extremism that mixes charisma, money and promises that bypasses morality, fairness, truth and integrity in successfully campaigning for political office. A prime example is the deft harnessing by Trump of the anger of Populism in our most recent election. This, of course, was facilitated by Roger Ailes with Fox News, Bannon with Breitbart, perhaps the Russians that broadcast extreme views sprinkled with alternate facts and fake news via social media. Plus, less than half of the American electorate votes. And many of those that do have only a marginal grasp of the facts and how their vote has the potential to impact their lives. Many voters are extremists in that they lose the scale of their political voice by voting on single issues, party loyalty and subjective and often disleading impressions of the candidates.
In my professional life, I would like to think that I lost myself in the mission of practicing medicine. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, medicine has provided me the opportunity for self-actualization which might be considered a synonym for ‘finding oneself’ and being all you can be. Certainly, losing yourself to find yourself in the challenge of a productive career, a fruitful marriage and successful child rearing is glorious and a gift that keeps giving of the bounty that this life offers. But this paper is not about the life well lived but rather the dysfunction that occurs when you ‘find yourself’ in the purity paradox of unflinching orthodoxy and competition.
The world community needs greater flexibility and tolerance in public policy making and international relationships. Nations should not need to ‘lose themselves’ or become isolationist to find themselves. Democratic values are more resistant to nativism and dictatorship but they require an engaged electorate that are involved with the political process and who are seekers of truth and moderation.
All of us are on a quest for certainty, structure and emotional reassurance and survival. In an ideal world it would be comforting for everything to be either black or white and not grey. But, most issues are infected with diametrically opposing viewpoints just like a criminal trial where attorneys proffer opposite conclusions from the same body of evidence. And it is far too easy to take an extreme view without having to confront the ambiguities of reality and truth and the universality of being mortal.
In closing, I would contend that extremism is a vice and moderation is a virtue and make a plea for individuals to become lost in moderation and balanced views.