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Friday, October 23, 2009


Written by: Rick Staggenborg, MD on Mar 2, 2010 7:37 AM PST

This chapter is dedicated to William, the 18 year old travelling companion of Lynne Sharpe, the brilliant young woman described in the previous essay. He is the one she wisely chose to watch her back in the unlikely event that she encountered violence on her journey. She is smart enough to know that a good knife and the skill and willingness to use it effectively are not always an adequate defense against those with evil intent and the will and skill to rape and kill.

William is a lion of a man, a Hulk in the flesh. He told me that his family has a tendency to produce men with oversized hearts that give them prodigious strength and stamina. He is slow to anger and quick to forgive those foolish enough to harass or attempt to intimidate him. As importantly, he has a healthy respect for the unintended harm he can cause when he does lose his temper. He told me of an incident when he flipped a car over with his bare hands in fit of anger.

It is too bad for the students in Pittsburgh that he was not present at the police riot at the G-20 summit last September. If he had been harassed, Tazed and beaten by the fascist pigs who were filmed doing this to innocent college students just trying to flee, there would have been a much higher body count of police than students. 

The story of the female passerby who was clubbed viciously for trying to defend herself passively against an assault by a uniformed fascist made me want to see him suffer, but neither William nor I would be of help to others is we had been there and let anger destroy our reason. We cannot afford to let our best and brightest be made examples of by those who staged this assault against the people. They would not hesitate to use the full force of what passes for the law in this country to harass and intimidate us.

I knew that I liked William from the moment I saw him. I could look into his eyes and see his caring soul. The way he watched Lynne, I was sure that they were young lovers off on an adventure before starting their more mundane lives as adults. I was surprised to find that they had only got together to travel and that William had left a girlfriend behind. It had apparently been a tough sell, but he told her firmly that if she loved him, she would let him go and trust him to return to her. William knows that Lynne has a spirit too free to give herself to just one man at this early stage in her life. He just wants to be on the ride with her and be there to protect her if need be.

William and I spent the morning of their departure running errands. The more we talked, the more I found myself fascinated by his story. By the time we parted in Port Orford, I was agape with admiration. He told me of a gift he had received when a silly stunt he pulled went dangerously awry. His brother pushed him when he was straddling two parked cars, and he fell directly into a stick that embedded in the frontal bone of his skull so forcefully that it had to be surgically removed.

During the surgery, he for the first time had what he believes was an out-of-body experience. Disoriented and frightened, he watched the doctors and nurses extract the offending stick from his fractured skull. Afterward, he felt a wonderful peace and reassurance come over him as he “returned” to his body. This never happened again until seven years later. At the age of 17, he was walking along in a contemplative mood when he found himself again apparently outside his body. Rather than experiencing fear, he felt only the calm reassurance he had experienced at the end of his first EVA.

From what else I gathered from William, I concluded that he is a genius. The remarkable thing is that his family apparently produces mathematical geniuses regularly, but he stated that he wasn’t interested in learning math as a youngster, while his brother is an apparent prodigy. He told me as well that his brother is generally regarded as “stupid” by his peers and that even William thought this until he put two and two together. I told him that the story reminded me of Einstein, who didn’t talk until he was four years old, explaining later that he was “too busy thinking” about the nature of the reality to which he was born. It seems to me that there is a lesson here somewhere, if not a hundred.

William and Lynne put me in mind of my own daughter, who is on a different journey to the same goal. Like me, she is following a more conventional path to enlightenment. She works full time, goes to school, spends time with friends and family and goes to the United Church of Christ in Cedar Hills, Oregon, where she sings in the choir. She has degrees in Psychology and Mathematics and wants to be a mother, a teacher and a school principal some day.

Unlike me, she is patient and has always trusted that God will show her the way to her goals. It took me forty years of wandering in the wilderness before I realized that the answer to my pain was right before my eyes the whole time. I just had to open them to see that I was the cause of all my own pain. Once I realized that believing in God was not the same as giving in to superstition, I took the leap of faith and chose to accept in both my heart and mind that it was possible that God existed. Once I looked at the world with open eyes, the proof was everywhere around me.

Why do we choose to suffer and cause others to suffer? This is the question that baffles those who wonder why God would allow it. The answer is as simple as it is profound. God wants the best for all of us, but that necessitates giving us free will. We are as children to God, and we must submit to God’s will freely or not at all. Like any good parent, God wants us to have the freedom to make our own choices as long as we don’t irreparably harm ourselves in the process. God does not make things happen but only sets the stage for us to make the choices that will determine our individual and collective destinies. It is for us alone to choose between Armageddon and Heaven on Earth.

The mechanism that determines the outcome is encoded in our genes. There are genes that determine the development of what are called mirror neurons. This is a small sub-population of nerve cells that give us the unique capacity to respond to the emotional reactions of others with a similar reaction in ourselves. This creates a phenomenon we know colloquially as empathy. Thus, we are hardwired to feel the pain of others.

I know this all too well, having suffered decades of depression before I realized that I was only experiencing echoes of the pain of others and of my own past. In order to help others overcome their pain, it was necessary for me to find out how to allow myself to recognize their pain without making it my own. This is what doctors strive to achieve in developing clinical “detachment.” The only problem with this is that many of our most inherently empathetic clinicians are so exquisitely sensitive to the pain of others that they instead resort to repression of these responses, leading to untold suffering among their patients, which they are no longer equipped to recognize or to deal with effectively.

I guess that what I am trying to say in this essay is what I tried to teach my own mother at ten years of age: You are only as happy as you make up your mind to be. If you study what is good and right with the world and labor with every fiber of your being to leave the world to your children better than you found it, it is inevitable that you will succeed, because people are hardwired to be empathetic and one does not fool with Mother Nature unless he has blinded himself to Her gifts and assumed that his dismal worldview is the true nature of reality.

With apologies to Jackson Brown, here is my song for my brother Michael, an angel among us:

Though Michael was a friend of mine, I did not know him well.
I was alone into the distance, I was deep into my well.
Together we went travelling as we received the call,
His destination any bed, while I got none at all.
I can still remember laughing with our backs against the wall,
So free of fear we never thought that one of us might fall…

I sit before my only candle, but it’s so little light to find my way.
Now my story unfolds before my candle,
which is growing ever shorter as it reaches for the day.
Now, I feel just like a candle in a way.
I guess I’ll get there, but I couldn’t say for sure.

When we parted we weren’t laughing still as our goodbyes weren’t said
and I rarely talked to him again as each our lives we led,
except at times in some of our mother’s letters I read,
until I heard the sudden word that my brother was found dead.

I sit before my only candle,
like a pilgrim sits beside the way.
And my journey appears before my candle, like a song that’s growing fainter
the harder I play,
till I fear before it ends I’ll fade away.
I hope I get there but I’ll never pray. I’m sure.

Rick Staggenborg, MD

Coos Bay, Oregon

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