Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.

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Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.

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My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.

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Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

• • •

Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.

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Busted Brains, Broken Backs, and Hungry Bears: the Anatomy of Luck

A ventilator breathed for the 14-year-old boy in the bed next to mine at Massachusetts General Hospital’s intensive-care unit. Jared had been celebrating the Fourth of July with his family at the beach. It was a perfect summer day on Cape Cod – sunny and hot. He’d run through the water to dive into the waves like so many have done in our oceans. But his angle wasn’t right. Or a swell pushed him off balance. Or the Atlantic tide had created an irregular dune beneath the water. Whatever the cause, Jared’s forehead connected with the sandy bottom. His skinny teen body followed, bent his neck back, and severed his spinal cord.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this.

I never got my helmet back, but I was told it looked something like this. Probably saved my life. Unfortunately, Jared had nothing to protect his spine.

On the same summer afternoon that Jared’s paltry weight broke his neck, I’d been hit head-on by a car doing thirty miles per hour. My bicycle and I shattered against two tons of steel and tempered glass.

Jared, my neighbor in Mass-General’s ICU, was paralyzed from the neck down. I don’t know if he’s alive 15 years later. If so, he is still paralyzed. Meanwhile, after a couple months of physical and speech therapy following my accident, I went to college as planned. I got back on my bicycle. I held books in my hands and wrote papers and embarked on the rest of my life.

How did I escape Jared’s fate?

I have no reasonable explanation. I have nothing to credit with my good fortune and Jared’s rotten break.

Not just this once either. I own a vast catalog of moments when the universe didn’t crush me. Like that day I plummeted headfirst through a hatch in our three-story treehouse and walked away unscathed. Like that time I accidentally shot my step-brother with a bow and arrow, but the arrow was denied entry to a lung by one skinny rib. Like the fall I took rock climbing when my belayer had only just grabbed the rope again after getting stabbed with cactus spines that had been hitchhiking on the rope. The list goes on and on.

I’m not alone. I imagine that, like me, you’ve fortuitously dodged some bullets in your day. And some you haven’t.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

My beautiful and vibrant friend Erica Kutcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a freak avalanche killed her while on a hike in the Himalaya.

As time passes, I more deeply understand how we’re at the whim of forces beyond our control. Everything – motorists passing on the highways and meteorites plummeting toward Earth and freak irregularities of beach sand – it all unfolds here with a complexity that defies pat comprehension.

Still, many people claim to understand and pretend to be masters of fate. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, said, “People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.”  Lucky people say these things as if hard work and good sense are a recipe for serendipity. Tell that to Sudanese children born into abject poverty, disease, and malnutrition. Explain sensible acts to homeless families in LA who own zero resources – financial or scholarly. Expect more from women subjugated by ISIS in a land from which there is no escape. Criticize that eighteen-year-old for poor judgement when he contracted a rare and fatal brain cancer. The award for supreme arrogance goes to Earl Wilson, who said, “Success is simply a matter of luck. Ask any failure.” The blindness required to make such a statement is also just another product of happenstance. Mr. Wilson simply hasn’t had the opportunity or insight to see that the clockwork of the universe does not hinge on our petty desires as we scurry around in search of food, money, and love.

A friend of mine recently wrote: “I’m not a big fan of the term ‘luck.’” I share his discomfort with the notion of fate or destiny. And I also acknowledge that people everywhere should make good choices. However, I just don’t know what else to call this thing that keeps us alive… for now.

The more one delves without prejudice into the causes of life’s twists and turns, the more random they seem. Accident and serendipity are doled out with perfect irregularity, which provides a somewhat irksome explanation as to why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Solace might be found, I suppose, in the idea that strokes of misfortune aren’t aimed with malicious intent. But by the same token, we must also acknowledge that no credit or praise is due when a lucky break falls into our lap.

I happen to agree completely with Larry King on this point, who said, “Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.”

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My close encounter with a hungry Black bear last summer in British Columbia left me at a loss to explain why the bear chose to pursue three other people instead of me.

It’s easy to kid ourselves. After all, a strong illusion holds my world together. It’s the illusion of control. I choose this. I allow that. I plan this. I expect that. I think of my life as a clock, and I am the time-keeper. Every now and then, though, when a rock falls nearby at the crag or when a bear steps from behind a boulder to stare at me hungrily or when my phone rings in the middle of the night, I remember that I am but a small boat on a wild and changeable sea.

That collision with an automobile pushed me right to the edge. In the end, I walked away with a shattered helmet, a few deficits of memory, and a jaw that’s a little cockeyed. Even fifteen years after getting crushed by that car, I still have only one story to tell. It is a story of luck — in every sense, good and bad. It is the same story that moves my fingers on this keyboard and recently broke my friend’s back and engineered your remarkable eyes. We are pinballs in a crazy game of life, whether we want to believe it or not.

For the time being, I’m going to embrace the one thing that makes more sense to me with each turn of this planet: gratitude. We live on a tsunami of happenstance. Riding this crest, I will dissolve into appreciation, because anxiety about things outside my control only robs these days of their terrifying and precious beauty.

Forget fear. I will run. I will breathe. I will laugh. And cry. I will take chances and love people and be awestruck by the tree outside my window and my wife’s perfect smile. I will appreciate every goddamn moment given to me by this savage universe. I will do these things until my luck runs out. And I will do it all with the hope that a kind destiny favors my path and yours.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

Megan smiling in the right place at the right time.

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Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

A Story of Honor

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Yesterday, 22-year-old Zach Taylor, a graduate of Grand County High School and student at the University of Utah, died in a rappelling accident. Zach’s kind father happens to be a volunteer for the mentoring program I oversee. I know nothing about the circumstances of Zach’s death, except what his mother shared in a public Facebook update:

“I had the most amazing day with my son, Zach Taylor on Saturday. It was just the two of us, and our dog Ubu, going on an adventure. I didn’t realize it would be part of a goodbye. He died yesterday while hiking and rappelling with friends, doing what he loved to do most. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I call him, unabashedly, my favorite child. And his siblings handled my favoritism well, because they admitted that he, too, was their favorite sibling. Zach was pure energy. May he continue to be so in this next life as well.”

Many people decry risky pursuits as selfish (such as canyoneering deep in the backcountry). Yet Zach’s mother handles the circumstances with utter understanding. In fact, her online elegy flies in the face of a recent blog post by Steve Casimiro. In this post, Steve wrote:

“‘Hey, Glenn,’ I said to my partner. ‘If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.’ He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

“Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

“Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.”

Meanwhile, Zach’s mother seems to take solace from the fact that her son died doing something he loved, even if that act resulted in disaster, possibly from a mistake. And why shouldn’t she? Naturally, life is preferable, but isn’t it better that her son died in a climbing accident rather than from, say, a random dose of food poisoning? He died in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wild canyons of adventure. Regardless of whether the accident was preventable or not, Zach was doing something he loved, probably riding high.

CanyonEvery adventurer who knowingly (but not recklessly) risks the ultimate cost has earned my respect. So too have hobbyists of mellower pursuits. They have all chosen causes that transcend the mundane requirements of life through bowling and playing music… or mountains and big waves and dirt bikes and BASE jumping and riding horses, because life would otherwise mean too little. I honor their selection of the right tools to make meaning for themselves. I honor them by calling death untimely but not tragedy. Sad? Yes. Are we bereft of good people like Zach? Yes. But I will not dishonor my friend’s big life choice that put her forever under an avalanche in the Himalaya or Michael Reardon’s soloing pursuit that put him under the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their decisions did not end in senseless deaths. No, they resulted in lives powerfully lived, albeit shorter than most.

I salute also those who recognize in others the primacy of instinct. Apparently Zach always loved to climb. His mother, still perfectly unapologetic about her son’s native spirit, went on to share a Facebook link to this story of his childhood:

“A couple of months into school I was asked to visit with his teacher. It seems that Zach was getting in trouble for climbing. He climbed the fences. He climbed the walls. He climbed onto the roof. He climbed onto the top of the swingset. He climbed onto the top of the slide where you’re not supposed to climb.

“The teacher told me all of this very emphatically with a scowl and furrowed brows. I nodded, listened. Inside I was thinking how incredibly adventurous my son was and was giving him a mental high five. Perhaps reading my thoughts, she decided to scold me like she had been scolding him, ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that could be? He could fall!’

“I said I would talk with him. And I did.

“‘Don’t climb at school.’

“And then I bought him a membership at a local climbing gym.”

I’m glad Zach’s mother hasn’t dishonored her son by labeling his passions selfish. Every pursuit (and every act) is fundamentally selfish, unless it happens to coincidentally benefit others. It’s nobody’s fault that some hobbies are more dangerous than others. I can blame nobody for the fact that beach volleyball doesn’t tickle me. And therefore, I allow others to chart their crazy courses as best they can without my passing judgment on the roots of their desire.

While some may argue about what is or isn’t an acceptable level of risk, I hope the people who love Zach will do his memory the courtesy of recognizing his decisions as central to the tenets of the person he was. I will celebrate the life he lived even though I didn’t know him.

BoulderingAnd if I die rock climbing or mountain biking or on an adventure, I hope my family and friends take comfort from the idea that I died doing something I loved. It will require a big mistake or an act of god to snuff out this life – which, by the way, could also occur on the interstate – because I do want to live. I am careful out there, by my definition of the word. I want to climb and laugh and hug another day. But if some hazard, whether objective or subjective, takes me out, please be consoled by the fact that it happened when I was seeking that which makes life meaningful.

If I die from botulism, though, feel free to call it tragedy.

So yes. I ask you, those whom I love, to take care while in pursuit of your dreams. I want to share in future adventures. I want to hear about the meaning you’ve made using the tools and variables at your disposal. And I hope you will forgive me if I judge your life well lived regardless of how it might end but rather by the light of your inspiration.

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The Answer to Hate

I wonder how to alleviate intolerance and antagonism such as this. If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at Russesl Brand’s interview of Steve Drain and Timothy Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church.

Remember, I totally acknowledge that Mr. Drain and Mr. Phelps are no more responsible for their beliefs and actions than I am. With so many people in the world, we’re bound to see bigotry and moral certitude expressed by some folks, simply based on probability. These people haven’t invented something new. Human beings have been carrying out inquisitions and witch-hunts since time immemorial. (See Cullen Murhpy’s book, “God’s Jury; the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,”)

Admittedly, the threat of a make-believe punishment (Hell) is far sweeter than the real tortures carried out by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. In other words, it’s not horribly difficult to withstand the vitriol of an angry pastor when compared to the interrogations of the Inquisition. Instead of burning people at the stake, now they appear as guests on a liberal talk show and spout Bible passages. That’s progress.

Nevertheless, I have to ask: What’s the antidote to their homophobic, absolutist approach, an approach that vilifies human beings for the circumstances of their lives and minds? I’m not looking to vilify Mr. Drain and Mr. Phelps. I simply wonder if there’s a way to make sense of and mitigate their destructive influence.

For a while, I didn’t make the connection.

Then, lying in bed this morning, I realized the antidote to ridiculous religious behavior and thinking is – of course – atheism.

CC:             “[I’m] openly gay. And [I’m] a Christian.”

Timothy:    “You’re a filthy pervert.”

CC:             “I’m an openly gay man, and I’m a Christian. Because God is love and his love is for everybody.”

Steve:        “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination. That’s in the Bible that you say you believe.”

Russell:     “I don’t think it’s one of the most important bits.”

Steve:        “Hey listen. There’s not going to be any creation going on when two men get together. I can tell you that right now.”

Russel:      “What worries me, Steve, to follow the ‘you musn’t lay with men’ bit, you’ve got to ignore the tolerance and love bit. And that’s got to be more important. That’s like a subclause, that’s like small print.”

Steve:        “No it’s not. No it’s not.”

Russel:      “I don’t think they even meant that part.”

Cher:          “You guys have to be civil. We’re going to respect you, so you should respect us, okay?”

Timothy:    “You’re a sodomiser.”

Steve:         “We love you enough to tell you what God’s standard is.”

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One Idea that Will Change Your Life

If you let go of preconceived notions, if at the very least you view this as a self-contained thought experiment, you’ll come away changed. Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument is very simple and therefore elegant. The paper offers some important insights about moral responsibility. What? Moral responsibility? Yawn.

Punishment takes on a new meaning when we consider the Basic Argument. (Source: Christian Graphics)

This is serious. The world’s penal systems rest on the concept of moral responsibility. Most folks judge other people’s behavior standing atop the foundation of moral responsibility. You’ll understand how powerfully this concept impacts your life once we get into it. So without further ado… The Basic Argument goes like this: 1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are. 2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain crucial mental respects. 3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all. 4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do. (Incidentally, Mr. Strawson does an excellent job of presenting his own work here at the NY Times) Fooey! you say. That’s just a way to shirk one’s responsibility, to justify bad choices! Look. Nobody is ultimately responsible for what they do, yet people make great decisions all the time. This argument isn’t going to change that. In fact, this argument will change very little, except some people’s understanding, those people whose experiences have taught them to value logic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it a step at a time. You do what you do because of how you are. We probably won’t disagree here. Why else would you do what you do? Because of the way someone else is? Of course not. You might eat chicken curry because you like it. You detest horrible pop music because you always have. You choose to learn BASE jumping because you have the inclination and because caution isn’t hardwired into your genes. Every predisposition and preference and decision you make is a product of who you are. It would be a hard sell to say: I do what I do not because of the way I am but rather because fairies tickle mushrooms, or because my parents messed me up (both of which would suggest somebody else was responsible for what you do anyway). I rock climb because that’s an activity I enjoy. I write because that’s an activity I find stimulating. I floss my teeth because I’m afraid of gingivitis. I mentor a kid because it’s rewarding to help somebody. I gulp down water because my experience and instinct taught me it quenches thirst, and I want to be quenched. I do all these things because of who I am. Simple as that. Can you think of any other reason you would do what you do OTHER THAN THE WAY YOU ARE? If so, please tell me. Now, to be responsible for your actions, you must be responsible for who you are. As we just saw, you do what you do because of who you are. If that’s true, and if you’re going to take responsibility for your predispositions and preferences and decisions, you must be responsible for how you are. In other words, you must have had some role in creating yourself.

Wall-E, like each of us, was created by the forces that shaped his “brain.” He didn’t create himself.

Ah. Here comes the crux of the argument: nothing can be causa sui – nothing can create itself. At first blush, that’s not hard to believe. I mean, a robot can’t create itself. A lamp can’t do so. A panda isn’t going to give birth to itself. And so on, including human beings. You didn’t make yourself. People begin to really take issue with the argument here, because we have the feeling, some unreasoned yet seemingly irrefutable sense, that we play a role in choosing who we are. However, because nothing can create itself, it becomes obvious that two things claim responsibility for creating the “me” which is ultimately responsible for my choices: 1) my genes, 2) my earliest experiences. In fact, we don’t get to choose either one, so this takes us to the last point in the argument: if you cannot be ultimately responsible for who you are, you cannot be ultimately responsible for the things you do, and therefore, moral responsibility is impossible. But, you might want to claim: I choose whether to do wrong or right, or you might say: I make the choice between stealing food or paying for it. Yes, you do, and always your choice is based on who you are, and since you can’t create yourself, you’re not ultimately responsible for what you choose. We do, of course, have an intrinsic sense of responsibility for our decisions, at least those of us with a conscience. Yet this is something also inherited from our genetic makeup and life experiences and therefore something for which we’re not responsible. The trajectory of our life can be selected, but the decisions always will be based on previous life experiences and innate proclivities that we didn’t independently select, so this proximal sense of responsibility is only illusion. It’s an illusion so powerful that we grant culpability to every human being that might treat us well or ill. Though we have good reason to do so in many cases (such as promoting beneficial behavior and protecting ourselves against dangerous circumstances), that doesn’t mean we’re correct in assigning praise or blame. Take any action somebody performs. Ask whether the decision was a product of who she is. Inevitably, any behavior consciously performed (any behavior done intentionally, because what else would we want to hold her accountable for?) will stem from who she is. Since she can’t ultimately be responsible in any way for who she is, she can’t be ultimately responsible for what she’s done.

Charles Whitman: Suffered a brain tumor that turned him into a murderer.

Here’s an apt example that serves to show how our choices – those decisions that seem to be made with independence and freedom – are simply products of wiring. An intelligent man began feeling ill. He noticed dramatic changes in his own emotional stability, his thinking. Hours after killing his wife and mother, he climbed into a bell tower and shot pedestrians down with a case of guns before being gunned down by the police. In his suicide note, he wrote that he couldn’t provide a logical explanation for his behavior and asked for an autopsy. The medical examiner found a tumor in his brain that impinged on the amygdala, a region of the brain “involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression.” It’s a simple case of a man carrying out decisions that were a product of an altered state of consciousness, one caused by a bundle of anomalous cells. (Read the full Atlantic article here.) The above is an extreme example, but it’s nevertheless appropriate because we are each and every one of us like this man – products of circumstances beyond our control. We inherited these neural structures. We were exposed to certain stimuli that shaped our personalities. Brain tumors strike at random all the time, something for which nobody is culpable. That is who we are. So I can do whatever I want? I can steal or kill or maim without being responsible for it? The answer hinges on the idea of the self, the concept ME. You – your experiences and genetic inheritance – are responsible, though you’d like to think there is a self separate from the mechanics of the brain. But remember, that brain in no way created itself, so it is the experiences and genetic inheritance that are ultimately responsible for the actions you’d call your own. In this society and in any society that I’d want to call home, we won’t allow a bundle of experiences and genetics to commit theft or murder or assault without recourse. Yet at the same time, to place blame verges on cruel or even downright barbarous when the criminal is an instrument of circumstances beyond his control. Tune in to a future post about real-world consequences of the Basic Argument. And in the meantime, take a shot at putting a hole in the Basic Argument. I dare you.

AMNESIA Goes to Court

The woman’s insurance company respectfully informed me that I still owed $2,650 in damages. My head shattered the Nissan Pathfinder’s windshield, my bike scratched the body panels, and my torso tore off a side-view mirror. Somebody had to pay for this. “We are looking to you for full reimbursement of the Net Loss. Very truly yours, Greg McDonnell, Claims Representative.”

Their letterhead assured me of a commitment to excellence: “Insurance that starts with you.”

The letter came just a few weeks after I started eating again. My jawbone had healed. My short-term memory had improved so I could remember a little bit of what happened in the previous day. I was creating new memories and beginning to understand just how much I had forgotten from the last two years of high school; college classes were tough.

The letter went into the trash where their other claims had vanished.

Some people decry our overly litigious society. I’m one of them. I recently read about an accused murderer suing two of his former hostages after being shot when they escaped and informed police of his whereabouts. A lady sued Universal Studios after being too scared in their haunted house.

However, the lawsuit is a bulwark against corporate turpitude and lawbreaking by individuals, and many claims merit attention. For example, U.S. states won a multi-billion-dollar settlement from cigarette makers. Countless individuals have been favored over corporations and other individuals for illegal behavior. Going to court isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s the only gesture that will be understood and the only recourse in seeking justice.

Witnesses said the sound of impact was memorable.

A new letter said the insurance company would seek damages to its client’s automobile in court.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to the person I most trusted at the university, my professor of religious history who had taken me under his wing. Professor Stein welcomed me warmly to his office, sat down in an old, stuffed chair, and held the letter out to read. His great beard wobbled as his lips sped silently over the words. I gave him the police report too. While he read, I studied his observant Jewish attire, the tassels from the tzitzit worn under his black jacket, a black hat on the coat rack.

“This is absurd,” he said, waving the letter. “She hit you!”

“What should I do?”

“I will contact a friend about this. The best lawyer in Vermont. We’ll see what he says.”

Countersuit was what he said. We met in one of the tallest buildings in downtown Burlington, right next to the courthouse. James Rivlin reviewed the accident report and explained that I could sue the driver.

“What are your goals for this lawsuit?” he asked.

“I don’t want to pay for the damage to the car. And I suppose her insurance company should get the message that this is wrong. Originally I just wanted to move on with my life, to put the whole thing behind me. But now that they’ve dragged me back into this crap…”

“If you sue for the maximum liability coverage, only her insurance company will have to pay. The driver won’t have to pay anything. For her policy, that’s three hundred thousand dollars. It’s a good case, and Professor Stein is a friend. We can do the work pro bono.”

“Um. Okay.”

Once the process was set in motion, it gained its own momentum. I occasionally stopped by the Rivlin offices to work with an investigator, Brian Stone. He wrote everything down with a gold mechanical pencil. Everything. Whenever he made a mistake, he paused and erased and rewrote. Other than the occasional meeting, I didn’t have much to do. My lawyers collected documents from police. They scheduled and carried out depositions.

Yay for helmets.

Later, the insurance company’s lawyers deposed me in a long interview in a Boston high-rise, during which I mostly said, “I don’t remember,” or answered yes or no without embellishment. My lawyers patted me on the back when we left. “I wish every client gave such concise answers,” Brian said. But it was only the truth. I didn’t remember anything about the accident. All else was merely conjecture.

During a grueling two-day evaluation in Brookline, a psychiatrist ran me through a gauntlet of tests. Math problems, puzzles, reciting lists of words from memory. A computer screen threw colors at me, and I had to press the spacebar when it blinked green. I drew charts from memory.

Several weeks later, her ten-page report arrived.

“Daniel’s rate of processing visually-presented material is impaired… He scored below the 1st percentile in comparison to others of his age and education…  Daniel was also impaired in his performance of the ACT, an aurally-presented task that is quite sensitive to difficulties with working memory, divided attention, and speed of processing… His subjective complaints of ongoing memory problems are therefore borne out not only by his inability to recall specific information from events occurring before and after his accident, but also by scores on formal memory tests that reflect a level of performance that is inconsistent with, and significantly lower than, premorbid ability.”

After getting fixed, this bike went on to carry me around Burlington and Yosemite National Park. Then my best friend Jed bought it from me. After a couple years of use, he passed it on to my brother, who owns it to this day.

And in the conclusion, she wrote: “The pattern of results suggests that Daniel may have sustained a blow to the left fronto-temporal region, affecting his working memory for verbally-presented material, followed by a more posterior blow to his right temporo-occipital-parietal area, affecting visual information processing and encoding. Reduced finger tapping with the right dominant hand also raises the likelihood of involvement of the right motor cortex.”

     Lower than expected.

     Deficits.

     Diminished. 

      <1st percentile.

      Poor performance. 

     More errors than expected.

     Impaired. 

     Impaired. 

     Impaired.

What price tag can be put on the inner workings of the mind? What value do our memories have? Would $300,000 make things better? Would I recoup full function even if I won a million dollars in court?

Of course, the answer was no.

The final line of the report wasn’t cheerful. “Since these deficits are still apparent over a year post-injury and given the severity of the injury initially, prognosis for a full recovery to premorbid levels of functioning is guarded.”

The court date drew near. I borrowed a sport coat and tie from my father. My mother bought me two pairs of pants and two shirts. I borrowed my stepfather’s shoes, which were a little tight but polished to a sheen. So familiar were they with my running clothes and beat up college wardrobe, Brian and James breathed real sighs of relief when I arrived at the courtroom in a mélange of borrowed attire.

“Dan is entirely realistic in his expectations. I have never had the impression that a large financial recovery is of great importance to him.”
–James Rivlin, Esq.

The defendant hadn’t shown up for the jury selection, but the insurance company’s lawyers were there.

Potential jury members filed in, a gloomy group of individuals who cast me sidelong, unfriendly looks. Who could blame them? They were torn out of their regular lives to judge a case that existed only because of an insurance company’s greed. After some preliminaries, the judge asked to talk with us in her chambers.

Thus began the arbitration. “Surely you can come to a settlement without going to trial,” she said. Judge Carter was a stately, gray-haired woman with a no-nonsense, penetrating gaze. She told us the insurance company was prepared to pay fifty thousand dollars to settle. My lawyers said no. Judge Carter went away to talk with the defendant’s attorneys in another room. I sat uncomfortably at the conference table, waiting in silence for their counter offer. Brian looked through some documentation. James gazed off to some other time and place. He said, “You’ll get a third of whatever they offer. One third will go to your health insurance company, and a third will cover our fee.”

The judge came back. “Sixty thousand.”

James looked at me. He looked at the judge. She looked at me. I shrugged.

“I think we can get more,” James said. He talked with the judge about our case. I spoke up a little, but I mostly let the attorneys do the spinning.

“You look healthy. You sound healthy,” the judge said to me.

“As Mr. Rivlin mentioned, I have memory problems.”

“A panoramic radiograph showed a horizontal, minimally displaced though well positioned, compound fracture at the inferior aspect of the vertical ramus.”
–Oral surgeon

“Okay.”

“And I had my jaw wired shut for five weeks. I couldn’t eat for more than a month.”

“There! See his pain and suffering! We should be going for more money!” James cried, as if my broken jaw were the real tragedy.

The judge went away.

She came back. “Ninety thousand. It’s their final offer.”

“A moment with our client please.” When Judge Carter was gone, Mr. Rivlin said, “What do you think, Daniel? Ninety thousand. We could get nothing if we go to court.”

“Or we could get more,” Brian pointed out.

“Let’s be done with it,” I said.

A month later a check arrived for $28,865.97. I’d never seen so much money in one note. I bought a used car. I spent thousands on travel and adventure and climbing equipment, determined to use the insurance company’s money to build up a new reservoir of memories. For three months I traveled across the country with my wife-to-be. We went to New Zealand and Thailand and Laos. Three years later, I backpacked across Europe with the last of my funds, and when they were gone, I kept going, never the same again.

But when are we ever the same?

AMNESIA: Memory as Identity

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.

College.

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.

When your memories have been chopped up and destroyed, so that the people you knew look like strangers and those you remember are disappointed by what they see, there’s only one direction. Forward.

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.

AMNESIA

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.

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