Medicine For People!

July 2016: Future Shock

Harmony Day
By DIAC images - Harmony Day, CC BY 2.0,

Future Shock


  • Where I Came From
  • An Atmosphere of Intolerance
  • How Do We Expand Our Understanding?
  • Accepting Ourselves
  • The Environmental Connection
  • Thinking the Unthinkable

Future Shock

Where I Came From

My father grew up on a dairy farm in Texas that could not exist today. Even back then, 20 cows in an unpainted wooden outbuilding were barely enough to keep meat and bread on the table. My grandparents slept in an area partitioned off from the living room. Seven children grew up in two bedrooms just above. That house, never more than lightly built, fell down not too long after the oldest daughter, Anna, moved out, her care for my dying grandmother no longer needed.

Each son in turn delivered milk when he came of age. My uncle recounted that as a child he once spent most of an afternoon scanning six blocks of graveled road for a family-owned nickel he had somehow dropped on his milk rounds. My grandfather and grandmother emigrated from Holland, insisted their children learn English only, and gave to Southeast Texas our Anna the dedicated and devoted small-town first-grade teacher, two successful small-town businessmen, two attorneys, Marie who raised five children and then became the town historian, and my father the naval officer.

My mother grew up about an hour up the road in a part of Texas you can still easily mistake for Kentucky with its rolling fields and forests. Her roots were in a couple of ancient farmsteads. We children jumped from the lofts of decaying barns into haystacks below and watched our weather-beaten great-uncles undertake critical tasks such as skinning and dressing an enormous hog hung by a rusty chain from a massive branch on a great and spreading tree.

My extended family included 3 great-grandparents, 4 grandparents, 15 aunts and uncles, and 31 cousins. I grew up listening to my mother's constant reminiscences of archipelagoes of great-aunts, great-uncles, and second-cousins.

An Atmosphere of Intolerance

My relatives in Texas grew up in an atmosphere where racial experiences and ideas differ from those I hold. Those still surviving give evidence of views about race that vary all over the map. A few seem not to have escaped the prevailing views of their childhood, and yet they are my people.

For myself, growing up a transient in the North and West in a series of naval port towns, my perspective is somewhat different from my southern cousins. I was exposed early on to the more genteel national racial intolerance as well as the rougher ideas down South.

Yet even here and now in Port Townsend, a couple of members of my hiking group have occasionally expressed strong and emotional dislike for minorities. I have not been shy expressing my own personal understanding in rebuttal, and our relationship is one of confused admiration for each other's strengths along with a recognition that we disagree just about absolutely on this issue.

These discordances play out as well on our national stage. Fault lines appear and shine brightly between ethnic groups, economic conservatives and progressives, social conservatives and liberals—you name it. Violence seems only to escalate. As I write, grieving families in Dallas bury their murdered police workers. Following on so much other hate-driven violence, we can easily lose hope in our higher and more life-affirming nature.

Discouragement can easily look back and see only human intolerance.

Anthropologists tell us that Neanderthal man did not become naturally extinct, but was erased by their close cousins Homo sapiens. Ancient and modern history abundantly reveals our genocidal tendencies. Be it blacks and whites, Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Protestant, European immigrant and native American, we poorly tolerate people who are similar to us but have slight differences.

How Do We Expand Our Understanding?

Enforcing tolerance has a poor track record. The Abolitionists of the North failed to turn the South into a bucolic paradise of racial harmony. The United States military failed to replace Saddam Hussein with a less brutal regime. Marshall Tito's regime in Yugoslavia was followed by a genocidal bloodbath. You can add your own examples.

May I make the argument that we cannot force people to believe what we want them to believe? My relatives in the South and my hiking partners here at home are not going to change their minds because of my own awesome powers of intellect and persuasion.

For all that, though, history also records the eventual (albeit sometimes glacially slow) decay of most instances of xenophobia and hatred. Intolerance is expensive economically and emotionally. Europeans eventually turned their attention to their own economic betterment during the Industrial Revolution and forgot about the Catholic/Protestant conflict.

This week, as activists for Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter confronted each other across a Dallas street, the leaders of each group walked to the middle of the street and embraced each other. Their supporters put down their signs and did the same.

Accepting Ourselves

People rarely come to the doctor when everything is going great. They show up at the clinic or hospital when they suffer and they think the doctor can help them change that. Sometimes we can do that completely from the outside, as with surgery. Other times we help them grow and evolve, as they must if they wish to overcome substance abuse or domestic unhappiness. When we see episodes such as occurred in Dallas, or the slow healing of historic differences, what we see is the gradual and sometimes sudden evolution of ourselves as human beings. We come to see that we need not continue ways of being that are no longer useful and have become destructive. We come to see that we must question ourselves and our deepest beliefs and understandings.

Perhaps, most wonderfully, we can with grace let go of that which is destructive within us and accept the fearful and terrifying glory of this natural and human world in which we live.

Health workers, be they physician, nurse, or mental health worker, enjoy a front-row seat in this human drama. The play opens with suffering and discouragement. Act two reveals the beginnings of wonder and hope, often driven by the realization that previous ideas and coping methods simply have not worked. The play closes with a new human being, as different as a new species of butterfly.

The Environmental Connection

These observations, let me now confess, were a pitch. It has been a slow pitch, rooted in my Texas past; bear with me now for the fast break over home plate.

The images of island nations drowning in rising seas, or the news of thousands dead in India from unprecedented heat waves, may move us or it may not.

We have squandered time. Environmental changes now far exceed the abilities of our current political/social/emotional/legal systems to remedy. We face tough challenges getting along with each other now. The economic and physical stress of global climate change will only magnify our difficulties.

Might it be though, if we could evolve through our political/social/emotional/legal disagreements, that we could more rapidly stop the annual increase in the amount of carbon we put into the air, and then embark upon a reduction of our emissions to the point that we no longer have the fire under the furnace?

If we think that people in the South and in the rest of the nation need to undertake the difficult work of reviewing and revising their attitudes towards race, what do you think this current situation asks of us?

I think it requires us to accept that we must change our political/social/emotional/legal systems and our assessments of relative risk.

Thinking the Unthinkable

It is tempting to think that our grandparents grew up a simpler and easier world. They didn't. My paternal grandparents made the leap across the ocean not just in hope but from dire necessity. Such leaps into the unknown were probably taken by your ancestors as well. As Carlos Castaneda wrote "We are men and our lot in life is to learn and to be hurled into inconceivable new worlds."

Some of us today have been hurled into a world we could not have conceived of before, where a black man is President. Some have been hurled into an inconceivable new world where their 5- and 6-year-old children are gunned down at school. And all of us are being hurled into an inconceivable new world where the weather critical to our food supply and general well-being is becoming less and less predictable.

Several decades ago Alvin Toffler wrote the bestseller "Future Shock". He pointed out that change accelerates more and more quickly each year. When your horse cart could travel only 5 miles an hour, you depended only on yourself and didn't have to look too far down the road. The trip was predictable and relatively safe. We're now traveling at a dangerous speed over a challenging road with many hands on the wheel. We must make intelligent political and technological decisions to avoid disaster.

I think we can do it. Stay tuned.

Newsletter edited by Jody Bowers.



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.