December 3, 2022

By MIKE MAGEE

“These are unprecedented times.”

This is a common refrain these days, from any citizen concerned about the American experiment’s democratic ideals.

Things like – welcoming shores, no one is above the law, stay out of people’s bedrooms, separation of church and state, play by the rules, fake news is just plain lying, don’t fall for the con job, stand up to bullies, treat everyone with the dignity they deserve, love one another, take reasonable risks, extend a helping hand, try to make your world a little bit better each day.

But I’ve been thinking, are we on a downward spiral really? Or has it always been this messy? Do we really think that we’ve suddenly bought a one-way ticket to “The Bad Place”, and there are no more good spots to land – places that would surprise us, with an unpredicted friendship, a moment of creative kindness, something to make you say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”

I’m pretty sure I’m right that human societies, not the least of which, America, will never manage perfection. But is it (are we) still basically good. What does it mean to be human, and more specifically American?

In their 1980 book, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made”, written by surgeon Paul Brand and Christian popular writer Philip Yancey, they included a story, attributed to an unidentified speech given by Margaret Mead some time in the past. While it has never been able to be validated, if the anthropologist really said it or not is probably inconsequential because it rings true to so many.

Here’s one account of the full (non-verified) response:

“Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.”

So let’s say this is true. One follow-up question I would have liked to ask Mead was, What was the helper’s motivation, do you think? Was it mutual survival? Was it engrained human kindness or empathy? Was it love? And do you think the recipient of the care was surprised?

The capacity to be surprised, I think, is no small thing. It ties back to a bit of advice from my father used to offer when I was young. “Guard against being too knowledgeable.” What he was advising (with limited success back then) was that “certainty,” directed at circumstances, people, or conditions (and especially in moments of anger or fear) can land you way off the mark and lead to regrets.

To embrace the capacity to be surprised in a good way requires that we maintain openness to the possibility that people and circumstances may not be exactly what you think. An excellent example of this was the behavior of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the Reagan administration.

Koop at the time was a Don Quixote type character, a long time pro-life campaigner and companion of uber conservative minister Francis Schaefer. When he was approached by Carl Anderson, a Catholic aide to North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms about accepting a nomination as Surgeon General, it seemed a sure thing and he promptly resigned his post as head of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. After all, he not only had Helms support, but also Strom Thurmond and conservative Catholic Henry Hyde were firmly in his corner as well.

But what followed was nearly a year of bruising political combat as the AMA, the American Public Health Association (APHA), and a New York Times editorial on April 9, 1981 titled “Dr. Unqualified” attacked him with a vengeance As he approached his 65th birthday in limbo, he quietly reached out to all sides, and finally in October, 1981, was permitted to plead his case before a Congressional committee that included Ted Kennedy and Henry Waxmen. In that hearing, he stated to their surprise, “It is not my intent to use any government post as a pulpit for theology.”

For the next five years, he fought back against HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler, Reagan’s domestic policy chief “family values” enforcer Gary Bauer, and Education Secretary Bill Bennett, to be allowed to address publicly the HIV/AIDS crisis. From 1983 to 1985, Koop was excluded from the Executive Task Force on AIDS. Finally, In October, 1986, Reagan first uttered the word, AIDS. By then, over 16,000 Americans were already dead.

Koop was finally given the green light to lead on a response to the crisis and knew that public education had to be his primary tool. What became known, only years after, was that his primary friend and ally in the effort was the NIH’s Tony Fauci. Koop would consult with Fauci, day by day, as he formulated his drafts in secret. His 8-page pamphlet, titled “Understanding AIDS: A Message From The Surgeon General” arrived on 107 million doorsteps in America on May 26, 1988.

Senators Helms, Thurmond, Hyde and prominent conservative Christian televangelists attacked with a vengeance. He took the heat, stood up for America, and to the pleasant surprise of many who had earlier opposed him, stated  “I’m the nation’s doctor, not the nation’s chaplain.”

Mike Magee M.D. is a Medical Historian and author of  “CODE BLUE: Inside The Medical-Industrial Complex”

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