Source: The Narrative of Privilege
When I was five years old, I said to my mother, “I don’t ever want to grow up.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because,” I explained earnestly, “adults do not run everywhere they go.”
I love running. I have run marathons and ultra marathons for fun and in competition, over trails and roads, on five continents. Sometimes I ran all day, lost in the beauty of mountain tracks and drinking the sweet nectar of what it means to be alive. After I’d been hit by a car and suffered amnesia that left me confused and groping for an identity, running was still there for me.
Long story short: even though my knees aren’t able to travel at pace for such distances nowadays, running has always been an important part of my life.
So when I overheard a conversation recently while eating Indian food at a restaurant in Provo, it shook my world a little bit. The woman at a neighboring table told her husband about a mountain marathon taking place in the Wasatch Range. “All day they’re running on trails up there,” she said.
The man nodded, forked more tikka masala into his mouth, and said, “Hm.”
“I know,” she intoned with a grim shake of her head. She paused, looked at him seriously, and asked, “What’s wrong with people?”
What’s wrong with people?
I’ll be the first to admit sometimes it’s difficult to understand why folks do the things they do. For example, it remains a mystery to me why many people enjoy cooking. I don’t even like to heat water on the stove for oatmeal in the morning. And don’t get me started on math. Nothing could more thoroughly boggle my mind than the idea of somebody sitting down to a math proof and thinking, “This is fun!”
Honestly, I don’t even know why running is one of my favorite activities. Probably something in my DNA and in my past makes running light up the regions of my brain associated with pleasure and gratification.
Here’s what we do know, thanks to science and research: animal populations, including humans, thrive when a broad assortment of traits exist in their gene pool. The same principle grounds a common adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity strengthens a species’ shot at survival and success. So before we ask why anyone would bother to become a chef or a mathematician, maybe it would be wise to remember the good that comes from a broad range of skills and interest within our society.
After all, we like to eat, especially delicious food prepared by talented people. And it’s nice to know accountants keep our balance sheets balanced while engineers keep our planes in the air. For humanity, mathematics is good.
Our civilization depends on specialization. Only through a vast division of labor can we hope to develop new life-saving drugs, beautiful art, and advances in technology that increase our knowledge and improve our lives. Together, every person applying unique strengths and talents, we are far stronger than any one of us alone, not just for the horsepower, but also for the remarkable accuracy of these many brains working in synchrony.
James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, explains collective knowledge can actually be more insightful than individual understanding. For example, if you ask a large group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, the average of all those guesses will usually be extremely close to the actual number of jellybeans, often nearer than any single estimation.
When I remember that woman’s comment – What’s wrong with people? – I can’t help but think she fell victim to a very human tendency, that of dismissing others who are different. But more than that, she missed a very powerful question indeed: What’s right with people?
Answer: a whole lot.
We come in many beautiful shapes, colors, and sizes, with smart insights in every realm, from cuisine to mathematics, with a taste for many things, from gardening to running marathons. As a child, I was wrong. Adults do run everywhere they go. It’s just sometimes running looks a lot like chess and woodworking and mountain biking and doing community service.
No moment offers more opportunity for misunderstandings and judgements than our election season. This is when our different views and opinions collide and vie for distinction, just as they should. However, while navigating this election season, it would probably do us good to grant those different voices respect because only in our diversity are we most brilliant.
Originally published 9/17/14 in the Moab Sun News.
At eight years old, I was fascinated by the movie Regarding Henry. It stars Harrison Ford. His character suffers a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound. Henry has to piece his life back together, but the viewer knows he will never be the same, and in his case, that’s a good thing. He was a bastard before the mugging. Henry’s forgotten who he was and his memory’s been wiped clean. It’s a story of redemption through head trauma.
Never did I expect to go through a similar experience – in reverse. When you don’t start as a backstabbing, adulterous, mean guy and end up an angel, it’s a little harder to make meaning from the challenges of recreating yourself. When there’s no predetermined plot arc showing you the way to go, it feels a lot like being cut adrift.
Who am I?
I’m a collection of memories housed in a brain with unique wiring. But what happens when the structure gets jostled? What happens when some of the memories are dislodged and the wiring rerouted?
Am I the same person?
You could say we change every day, since we’re making new memories every day. And that’s true – to an extent. It’s a gentle change, though, a glacial shift hardly noticeable because the pace is typically so bloody slow.
An oncoming car connecting with a noggin at more than thirty miles per hour – that’s a recipe for fast change.
I took only three classes, which earned me my first embarrassing C-level grades. My jaw had just been released from its metal prison, so I was eating again. I went to the dining hall and ran into a pretty girl from Proctor Academy, the prep school I attended in central New Hampshire. I guess that’s where we had known each other. She said, “Dan! Oh, it’s good to see you!” She grabbed me in a long, tight hug, and I smelled flowers in her hair.
“It’s good to– good to see you too,” I stammered.
“How’s running going? Are you on the team?”
“No, I’m not. Uh, how are you?”
“Great. I had a great summer. Field hockey is going well. How’s your mom? Here, do you want to stand in line with me?”
“Um, no. Sorry. I have to go meet someone.”
I ran away. I still don’t know who that nice girl was. She knew all about me, and I didn’t even recognize her. Not one bit. She didn’t even look familiar.
Believe me, this isn’t the only time it happened. A guy at the dorm mailroom reached out the window and grabbed my hand. “Dan! Hey, man, how are you?”
“I’m good. Sorry, gotta run to class.”
After these first two encounters and more, I began to understand how important memory is, not just for keeping track of your life, but for having an identity. What does it mean when you can’t remember somebody? It can only mean that you don’t care about them, that you don’t value them as a person and a contact. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth. I couldn’t bring myself to say:
“I’m sorry. When I was bicycling this summer, a car hit me. I have retrograde amnesia. Can you help me remember how we know each other?”
It’s a simple explanation – plausible and pitiable. But what if I had brought myself to say this? It would have been an admission that my memories of this person were gone. If one half of an equation disappears, the solution is meaningless. If someone doesn’t remember who you are, what’s the point? You can never go back. You can’t ever have the same relationship that you once did.
How much effort would you want to invest in an idiot without a single scrap of memory about all the time you spent together?
These were the easy encounters. Harder was learning from my mother that Jed, my best friend, spoke about me during his salutatorian speech. No, I didn’t remember graduation. Apparently among other things, Jed spoke about how after twelve years as best friends, we had grown even closer during our semester of travel with Mountain Classroom. No, I didn’t remember Mountain Classroom.
Harder was holding up the relationship I had with a girlfriend of three years. I didn’t feel as close to her. I didn’t remember so many of the things she remembered. I didn’t seem to value the same stuff as the old version of myself, partly because I couldn’t remember what I was like before the accident and partly because what I could remember seemed so foreign.
No, I didn’t remember her birthday.
No, I didn’t daydream about getting married.
No, I didn’t want to have kids.
No, I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.
As my brain healed, as I rose up out of a trauma-induced depression, I began to inventory the things in my life – my values and assumptions and principles. I held each one up for examination.
To what would I say yes? This is where my new plot line began. It’s not as flashy or redeeming as Henry’s. I haven’t solved a mystery or rebuilt a family. I said goodbye to my lost past and accepted that a new life lay ahead. That was the key to healing, the door to a new life: acceptance. Maybe this is a different plot line than I was supposed to have, but I like it. I’ve accepted the new me. Without this bit of personal redemption, I don’t think everything else could seem so damn beautiful to me.
When I was eighteen years old, my life broke cleanly in two.
My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember.
An orange Cannondale racing bicycle delivered me to a fracture on the island of Martha’s Vineyard on the Fourth of July, 1999. An oncoming Nissan Pathfinder, driven by a sixteen-year-old with a carload of friends, turned across my path. Police present at the scene estimated my speed at the moment of impact above thirty miles per hour.
Much later I saw a photo of the car. It showed a windshield broken as if struck by a bowling ball. My head made that spider web of cracks. My body broke off the side mirror. My bike, cracked in two, scratched the side panels as momentum carried me along and dumped me on the pavement. The medics reported that I was combative. They cut off my backpack, detatched me from my clipless pedals, injected a sedative, and loaded me into a helicopter bound for Massachusetts General Hospital on the mainland.
I don’t remember a thing about the accident. Those three words became like a mantra.
I don’t remember… what happened.
I don’t remember… why I’m in the hospital.
I don’t remember… the last two years of my life.
Memory isn’t just one operation. It’s complex, broken up into different types and processes, and our imperfect knowledge about memory comes from studying people like me – people with amnesia – and also people with degenerative brain disorders.
The doctors warned my parents, and they warned my girlfriend. He might be different when he wakes. Brain trauma can change a person, especially cases so serious. He might be mean. Disagreeable. You might never again speak with the same person.
I woke after three days, aching and stupid. I asked why I was in the hospital so many times that the question feels like the shadow of a real memory. My family worried over me in the ICU as I slowly advanced through stages of near-infantile confusion to the capacity of a ten-year-old.
Two weeks later, the torture began.
They moved me to a rehabilitation center. Every day demonstrated the futility of my efforts.
“Say these numbers back to me: five, three, eight, six.”
“Um. Did you say five?”
Occupational therapy and speech therapy were like the rack and the iron maiden to my pulverized brain. Those wonderful, dedicated, talented women would clap me in irons daily to inflict pain. I hated failure. I hated myself. I hated the rehab center. I hated the ache in my jaw provoked by the meat served on cafeteria trays. Say, wasn’t I vegetarian before, you know, before all this?
“If you ate one red M&M and then one blue M&M, what was the color of the first M&M?”
“I don’t know.”
Denise, my occupational therapist, asked me to write down my meals. She wanted a full report on what I ate for breakfast, what I found for snacks in the trove my family brought during their visits. I forgot to write down what I was supposed to write down to remember. And this was my life. My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember. The notepad traveled around in my pocket like a piece of lint – useless and ignored and when found tossed aside because “What was this for?”
Getting lost in the rehab center was standard operating procedure. I didn’t know where my room was. I didn’t know where the PT facility was. Hey, they had a pool in here?
Then one day I saw the red cover and the black spiral of my notepad and an explosion of memory speared my mind. This was for writing, writing down something about food.
The explosions, those shocking moments when a series of neurons connect and fire together, they started happening more often. Pudding, chicken, and cereal. Soup, hotdogs, and iced tea. Food began to fill up the pages of my memory journal. Then Denise stopped going easy on me. The torture escalated.
“What did you do in physical therapy today?”
“I don’t remember.”
“When did you last speak with your mother or father?”
I gazed out the window and wondered which day of the week it was. It looked like summer.
After a few weeks, they let me move home with my parents and continue therapy as an outpatient. Everything at home told me about something I had forgotten. I was supposed to go to college next month. I had been training to join the cross-country running team. Dozens of get-well cards said they were sorry. Photos surrounded me that I couldn’t place, places stared at me that I couldn’t name, names were gone like the future that was supposed to be waiting for me. Gone.
It wasn’t nice to be home.
Major depressive disorder is a frequent complication of [traumatic brain injury] that exerts a deleterious effect on the recovery process and psychosocial outcome of patients with brain injuries. (Jorge, Richardo, et al. Article.)
The weirdest part was looking at the photos. Not only did I not remember where and when many of them were taken, but I didn’t know that person in my body. Who was that? It wasn’t me. My parents confirmed it. My girlfriend agreed. So did the people who, evidently, were my friends. I was different. A different person. “I liked the old Dan better,” my father said.
My jaw, they discovered, was broken. “Wire it shut,” they said and wire it shut they did. For the next five weeks, I would drink calories through a straw, waste away to skin and bones because sucking is no way to eat.
At that time, I wanted nothing more than to go back, to return to my life and return to a personality everybody liked better, whatever it was. But I was off trail, standing in a wilderness that didn’t look familiar. There was no way to retrace my path, no landmarks or features showing me the way back.
That was the break. The fracture that split my life in two.
And life, as they say, went on. For me. For others. Proof arrived in the mail six weeks after the accident.
Please remit payment within four weeks after receiving this notification. You owe $2,650 in damages to our client’s Nissan Pathfinder.