August 26, 2005

Reflections on "Mountains Beyond Mountains"

Yesterday (Thursday) was the Share the Vision part of the orientation program for the new Case students. This year's theme was based on the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world by Tracy Kidder, which the incoming class had read over the summer. This is a truly inspiring book about a man who is driven to bring quality health care to the poorest of the poor, mainly in remote regions of Haiti. Severance Hall was almost full with students and faculty and I was one of the panel of speakers. Below is the text of the talk I gave to the group.

I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains and enjoying it when I came across something that made me sad and melancholy. It occurred when I read that Paul Farmer was nine years younger than me. I was immediately reminded of satirist Tom Lehrer who said in the introduction to one of his songs, "It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished." Lehrer was just 37 years old at the time, and he added: "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years."

I had pretty much that same feeling when reading this book.

Of course, you are much younger than Paul Farmer and so have many years to achieve as much or more than him, if you desire to do so.

But there are still some aspects of reading inspiring biographies of people like Farmer or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks that can be discouraging, and it is that question that I want to address.

Such people are often portrayed as having confronted some great challenge in their lives that they rose to meet, and so achieved greatness. Unfortunately this portrayal of such people as unusual heroes and saints confronting extraordinary challenges breeds the feeling that these were somehow rare people with special qualities, and that the rest of us either do not have these unusual qualities or that we may not be fortunate enough to be confronted with a great challenge that will enable us to show our mettle.

I remember the high school I went to in Sri Lanka. It was a Christian school and at the beginning and end of each year we would sing a hymn that had the words (not quite in this order):

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside

It was a very inspiring hymn, so much so that I still remember nearly all the words decades later. When we sang it we hoped that one day we too would be confronted with that once-in-a-lifetime moment, with a stark choice between good and evil, right and wrong, because then we too would bravely choose the side of right and, like Gandhi and King and our other heroes of that time, we would show the world what we were made of.

So we wait for this major choice to occur. And we wait. And we wait. And we wait. And then, one day we find that life has almost passed us by and we have that Tom Lehrer moment of sad realization that we have not really done anything.

I now feel that the sentiment expressed in that hymn is profoundly wrong. In fact, if you look more closely at the lives of the people I mentioned, they did not wait for the great moment of choice, that big decision that changed their lives. What really happened is that these people, throughout their lives, kept making small but important decisions.

To get a visual sense of what I am saying imagine that you are going along some road and waiting for some major fork to appear so that you can choose between two very divergent directions. What the lives of these great people really teach us is that often the road we travel actually has a large number of little forks that each diverge slightly. Each choice does not change our direction by that much. But when we consistently choose to go in a particular direction, we end up going in a much different direction than if we had chosen randomly.

What people like Farmer and the others did was to make deliberate choices in the small things in life. Then when some major decision did come along, they almost did not have to think about what to do. Their instincts, developed by years of small choices, kicked in and they knew what they must do. What I have learned is that it is the little decisions and challenges that we are confronted with every day that matter, Those are the decisions that shape our instincts, that make us who we are.

I remember Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT who has also been a prolific and sharp analyst of US foreign and domestic policies, talking about an incident in his life when he was in elementary or middle school. He said that a fat classmate of his was having his life made miserable by class bullies. Chomsky said that he felt sorry for that poor boy but did nothing to help him. He said that his inaction haunted him afterwards and made him feel guilty and he vowed that henceforth he would always take the side of the underdog. And I believe that that is what made him what he is today. I think all great people, when you look closely at their lives, made small but critical choices all along the way.

So the lesson of Paul Farmer's story is not only to think of grand goals of changing the world, although we should have such goals. It is also to look around us right now, to see who are the people who are the underdogs, who are the people left out, who are the people discriminated against, victimized and picked on, and consistently take their side.

On page 244 of the book, Kidder describes Farmer "stewing over an email from a student who had written that he believed in Farmer's cause but didn't think he could do what Paul did. Farmer said aloud to his computer screen, "I didn't say you should do what I do. I just said these things should be done!""

That's the take home message for me from this book. We should look around and see what should be done, however small, and set about doing it. Paul Rogat Loeb in his excellent book Soul of a Citizen says, "[T]here is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for voicing our convictions. What each of us faces instead is a lifelong series of imperfect moments in which we must decide what we stand for."

I remember the news report of a British soldier who performed an act of heroism. The Queen of England, when giving him an honor, asked him how he made his decision so quickly to risk his life to save others. The soldier played down his heroism saying, "It was nothing. It's just the training."

Training builds instincts. When you consistently take the honorable side, the side of the weaker against the strong, the side of those who have not against those who have, the side of the powerless against the powerful, you find that without even realizing it, you have already made the major decisions of your life. That is the true lesson of biographies like these.


I have been asked by Micah Waldstein and Jim Eastman to appear on their radio show 'Saturday Science' where they discuss current events in the intersection between science, technology and politics. They say the primary topic of discussion will be this blog (Jim has commented on some topics in the past) but I am sure the topics will range further afield.

The show is on Saturday, August 27 from 1:30-2:00 pm on WRUW FM 91.1. You can listen over the internet too.

It should be fun (for me at least!).


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Mano, I understand that Tracy Kidder will be the speaker next Thursday. You might want to mention it in your blog.

Also, thinking of what it takes to be a hero - for so many, like your examples, it just takes being willing to respond to history. I wonder if the nine black students who integrated Little Rock High School really wanted to turn their lives upside down. I doubt it. But they responded to history. And take our lovely Cindy, for another example. She's simply acting on her grief and in the process realizing that she's providing leadership and inspiration to others. I've been particularly touched by how many current and former Iraq soldiers she seems to be affecting, men who wouldn't be convinced by other kinds of people or peotests. Is it because she's the mother of one of their own? I wonder.


Posted by catherine on August 26, 2005 11:08 AM