When I was a teenager thinking about life and death and my place in the cosmos, I did not trust science at all. I had the early 19th century Romantic, Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein and his ungodly creation, view of science and progress as being out of control, aberrations not worth the few baubles they provided. Science led to atomic weapons and to pollution, serving as the tool of soulless greed and reveling in intellectual arrogance. Progress was a cancer, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Science and progress had become what we would now call “too big to fail,” and I wanted no part of them, at least not as a source for answers to the questions that mattered. Of course, the real question that mattered was when I was going to get laid, and when that happened, when I would again, but still, it seemed to me that we had likely taken a wrong turn somewhere around fourteen thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture.
I came of age in the 1960s. It was a time when the ideals that all are created equal and that the pursuit of happiness was every person’s birthright were being taken seriously. Weren’t freedom and justice what our fathers fought World War II for? Weren’t they what made our country great?
My journey led me to a spiritual hippie commune, The Farm. My wife Susan and I lived there for four years. We took a “vow of poverty;” we were vegans, lived with no running water or electricity, chopped wood for heat. I was in my early to mid twenties. We had two children there, delivered by midwives. My job there was making soy milk for some one thousand souls six days a week.
One teaching on the commune was: work is the expression of your love.
“Love” is easy to say. Maybe even for some of us it is easy to “feel” love, as an emotion, as a warm and joyful state, but then what? There’s just so many people who you are going to be able to express love to by having sex with them. How do you make love to others? With your actions. With your life. With your effort.
So it was on the commune I learned a work ethic.
This is very Zen. Chan monks worked in Tang China. That was new to Buddhism, the tradition being that you survived by begging. There is a famous Zen master who refused to eat when his monks hid his gardening implements. They were concerned that he was too old and frail to work.
Now, lets not get all literal about this. Sometimes physical labor is not possible or appropriate to a particular situation. It is really about right effort, right livelihood, doing what you can. Even a smile, a kind word, or at least a kind thought may be what you can do.
The last year we lived on The Farm, I was asked now and again to do temporary jobs off the commune in order to make some money to help pay The Farm’s bills. These temp jobs included nailing together wooden crates for shipping windshields for Ford at a small factory in Nashville and mowing the huge lawn of a military academy for wayward teenagers. I thought it would be more “Zen” to be an orderly in the neighboring county hospital feeding sick people, making beds, and cleaning up misplaced bodily fluids. So at age 24, I got my first paying full-time job ever at the very bottom of the medical hierarchy as an orderly while still living on the commune.
Working as an orderly, I had two mentors. One was an orthopedic surgeon, new to practice, the other an older African-American orderly. Both mentored me the same way by asking me incredulously what in the name of God I thought I was doing being an orderly.
The orthopedic surgeon and his wife had Susan and me over to their home. This was a big deal for us, a new experience. My wife thinks she actually wore a bra, or at least she hopes so now. They were a very beautiful and very blond couple in their mid to late thirties, and they carried themselves with an air of old-school Southern gentility. The confidence that came of being to the manner born, I supposed, but at least they were nice about it. They showed us around their remodeled plantation house, sharing tales of their efforts to recapture the elegance of the 1850s when the house was first built. The details of refinishing and matching the original hardwood floors and re-wiring a 125 year-old house were lost on us; our experience of growing up in small New York apartments built after the Second World War did not include historical renovation. We also were aware that it was slavery that supported the economy that allowed for such houses to be built. In fact, it was slaves that actually built the house. We had never been so close to Southern slavery before and it was jarring to share this lovely couple’s joy while trying to ignore history.
They were very kind and they sincerely wanted the two of us, twenty-something Jewish New York hippie dropout transplants to a commune in Tennessee, to understand the nobility of the ante-bellum South. Proudly showing us the photographs hanging in their family room of their ancestors who were officers and gentlemen who fought for the South during the Civil War (I don’t think they were so rude as to call it the War of Northern Aggression; I think we all just called it the war, we knew which war), they explained their view of their heritage. They wanted us to open our minds to the possibility that their ancestors were good, caring people fighting for a cause, not monsters. The war wasn’t about slavery, they insisted. It was about protecting a culture that was refined and honorable.
I took into account that our hosts were showing us a remarkable amount of respect. We had no social position. This lovely couple owed us nothing, had nothing to prove or gain by being good hosts and sharing their side of the story with us. They may have wanted more affirmation than I could have given them. I could go along with them part of the way. I could try to see their ancestors as human with all the limitations that entails, rather than as evil stereotypes. But in the end, whatever other motives there might have been for that war, however much they loved their culture, their honor, their lives and their families, it was so about slavery.
We were polite and listened to their family history and they seemed fine with that. We didn’t debate the issue. I kept my peace. It was a good day. We didn’t have to fight the Civil War again that afternoon and evening, we could see each other as well-meaning people trying to make sense of life.
The surgeon had a physician’s assistant working with him and encouraged me to become one. It was a new profession then, the first group of physician’s assistants to graduate having been composed mostly of ex-military medics only six years earlier. Physician’s assistants work with doctors, but have some level of autonomy and medical expertise. And the training was only two years. It seemed to me to be right livelihood, even if not as “Zen” as being an orderly. I decided to see about becoming a physician’s assistant.
I called around and a now long defunct program in a two-year associate’s degree granting technical college in Cincinnati accepted me based on a phone call. Physician’s assistant programs now often grant masters degrees and admission to all of the programs is very competitive. Even back then this easy acceptance was unusual, but it was helpful because I had no money or car to go for interviews. In addition, the technical college had a work-study program, so I was paid minimum wage for my clinical rotations, which alternated with the didactic blocks. We had two young children, so even with this stipend we would live below the poverty line, but it was something.
And so in June 1976 Susan and I boarded a Greyhound bus to Cincinnati with our two year-old and three-month old kids and all of our possessions. We landed first at the house of a family in who had visited The Farm a few times and offered to put us up for a while, and then once we could we rented our own small place. While we only had two rooms for the four of us, and no bedroom, at least we had running water, electricity and a bathroom for the first time in four years.
After I graduated from the two-year program, I worked as a physician’s assistant first for an internist in Cincinnati, and then for two family practice physicians in Northern New Mexico. After five years of working for doctors, I had it with doctors so I decided to become one (either put up or shut up I thought). I packed up my family once more and moved from Espanola, New Mexico to Albuquerque to take the required pre-med courses. I did well, which was a bit of a pleasant surprise given my history from grade school on as an academic underachiever. It was much more challenging academically than the physician’s assistant program, and I had no real previous experience studying science. When I had gone to college at the City College of New York for a couple of years right after high school, I took courses in art and art history, literature, philosophy and theater. I didn’t even know where the science courses were given. Now, having jumped successfully through the right hoops, at 33 with two kids and a slightly unconventional past, I was admitted into the School of Medicine of the University of New Mexico graduating class of 1989.
When I dropped out of college in 1972 when my father asked me what I was going to do I responded, well, it wasn’t like I was going to be a doctor or anything. That semester I was taking courses in Hindu literature and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, so it was a fair bet. He didn’t live to see me graduate from medical school. I didn’t know a renegade hippie spiritual teacher and a doctor who would try to explain the nobility of the antebellum South would be part of my life and inspire me.
But then, that’s kind of the point. Don’t set arbitrary limits on your universe.
And don’t try to guess your karma based on what you think. You’re not that smart!