Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Where Are the Heroes?

Do kids today have heroes, besides the transitory (and frequently drug-addled) pop star, movie idol and ball player?

Something happened today that inexplicably reminded me of one of my earliest heroes. Forty-nine years ago I was 13 and in the seventh grade. We had to read a biography for English class. The one I chose was James Monahan's Before I sleep; the last days of Dr. Tom Dooley. In that book I found several profound concepts that have shaped my life.

First, I saw a man of integrity and incredible compassion - Thomas Anthony Dooley III M.D. That a man could be both good and a Catholic was a radical idea to a kid who'd been brought up in a fundamentalist religion which literally views the Catholic religion as a manifestation of the devil himself. Looking deeply at this one man's life made me question the blindly ignorant views I'd been taught. This questioning would eventually ripen into a spiritual quest which has invested my life with meaning.

Tom Dooley said; "Dedicate some of your life to others. Your dedication will not be a sacrifice. It will be an exhilarating experience because it is an intense effort applied toward a meaningful end."

Second, I began a commitment to the elimination of war and the establishment of world peace through justice and decent standards of living for all the people of the world, not just those of us in the rich "west".

Tom Dooley said; "... only your compassion will bring peace about. A sick baby there threatens the health of your baby here. An angry man there threatens your comfort here." (Too bad no one with any political power was listening back in 1960, and still isn't listening today!)

Third, a love for the poetry of Robert Frost, and for the written word itself. Tom Dooley's favorite poem was Frost's
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it's queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there's some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

In James Monahan's book he used the last verse to illustrate Tom Dooley's devotion to his work with Loatian refugees - As the only physician available to thousands of desperate refugees Dooley had promises to keep, and kept them he did, refusing to leave his work and return to the US for treatment for melanoma. He died at the age of 34 of cancer. He said, "I am not going to quit, I will continue to guide and lead my hospital until my back, my blood and my bones collapse."

Fourth, in Dooley's life I saw exhibited a tolerance for the cultures, customs and religions of others, and a willingness to step outside one's comfort zone to embrace the diversity of humanity. I realized that the racism that had been carefully cultivated in me in the American south was wrong and unjust. Dooley taught me that, "Physically, we're all the same. Once through the external color, the heart, the brain, the blood, the pulse, the reactions, the reflexes are all the same."

Finally, I learned to love the art of medicine itself. If I'd had more physical strength I would have become a physician. Physicians would do well to emulate some of Dooley's compassion.

Why should this come back to me now? Well, I lost my friend Ron today, a neighbour who was nothing at all like Thomas Dooley. I called the ambulance, checked him for life signs, sat with his distraught wife in those first difficult hours.

As I often do in times of stress I came home and picked up my well-worn Frost anthology. I turn to Frost the way some people turn to the Psalms. I'd tucked a piece of paper in as a bookmark. On it were written Ron and his wife Yvonne's birthday (they shared a birthday), their anniversary date, and their e-mail addresses. The page it marked was "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", which I never read without thinking of Tom Dooley.

I learned a lot from Tom Dooley. He taught me to look at the world with fresh and fearless eyes. I learned a lot from Ron too; that I can enjoy a friendship with someone who doesn't share my views, and I through that friendship realized that my views are not sacrosanct. I have no right to expect others to shed ideas and beliefs they've held for almost all their lives. Ron was a teacher, a good man too, a man who was good in the same (and different) ways as Tom Dooley. Thanks for the lessons Ron, I'm going to miss you.


newwaytowrite said...

A nice remembrance. Thoughtfully written.

Outhouse Capital of Canada said...

Sorry to hear about Ron, Pat sent me an email telling me about his passing.
I have just returned from Palm Springs yesterday, I was visiting my brother there, also a trip to Death Valley, never having been there before. have lots of pics.