A Life that Passed Like a Wind

Thirty four years ago last November, my former roommate, Dan Cohen died at the age of 25. He was an extraordinary individual, and if you have a moment, I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.

Dan had the misfortune of being born a Thalidomide baby. He was significantly less than five feet tall, slightly hard of hearing, nearly blind but for his exceptionally thick glasses, and he had purple tinted teeth — which were always on display since his lips did not easily close over them. But the worst of it was that he had an exceptionally weak heart.

At the time I knew him, Dan could walk only a few hundred yards without stopping to rest because his heart would within that short distance pound like he’d run a marathon.

At an early age — maybe nine or ten — Dan’s doctors told his parents that, because of the weakness of his heart, he would most likely not live beyond 25 years old, which proved to be an accurate prediction. His parents made the decision to tell Dan what the doctors had told them, so Dan knew early on that he wasn’t going to live a long life.

I met Dan in college. He and I lived on the same dorm floor for awhile. We became roommates because no one else on the floor wanted him as a roommate. Frankly, Dan was one of the messiest people I’ve ever known. But when he asked to become my roommate, I figured I could handle it on the one condition that he didn’t let any of his mess stray to my side of the room.

It wasn’t long before I learned that Dan’s one ambition in life was to learn everything he could possibly learn as fast as he could learn it. Because of his circumstances, the university allowed him to study anything he wanted to study without pressuring him to graduate. His official major was biology, but he took courses in every major field of science along with many courses in the humanities. He was an engaging thinker, and introduced me to many ideas that were new to me.

The only thing Dan seemed to like more than learning something new was a good joke. Most of our conversations were laced with his wit, and even to this day, I can hear in my mind his laughter.

He also had an well-informed empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, that I myself at the time did not fully share with him. For instance, he was deeply concerned with injustices suffered by the Palestinians.

We only roomed together for one year before I left the dorms. Then one freezing winter night, Dan got a phone call from the hospital. My brother was seriously ill and had been taken to the emergency room. Could Dan give them my new number?

As it happened, Dan only had my address, but not my phone number. Without apparent thought for himself, he set out past midnight, in the middle of a blizzard, to walk to my new home because he didn’t have cab fare and couldn’t find anyone who would lend him the money. It took him, he said, almost two hours to reach me. He had to stop every block or so and rest his heart in the freezing wind.

What impresses me most about the man was not the selfless, heroic effort he made to inform me of my brother’s hospitalization, but rather his extraordinary love for life, his courage, and his sensitivity to others.

Dan knew he didn’t have much time in this world, but I never once heard him complain about it. You can say life was unfair to him, but that’s not a judgement he himself ever gave an indication of harboring.

Instead, I only recall his passionate enthusiasm when he would toss out to me some new idea he’d had, or some bit of knowledge he’d discovered that day. I think he made the most of the tragic hand he was dealt in life, and over the years, he has become something a personal inspiration to me.

Thank you for listening. I believe Dan deserves to be remembered.

Can a Person Who is Alienated from Themselves find Happiness?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

–Oscar Wilde

In Artic Dreams, Barry Lopez somewhere talks about an Inuit word for a wise person.  The word, if I recall, means “someone who through their behavior creates an atmosphere in which wisdom is made tangible.”  When I read Lopez a few years ago, I thought of Paul Mundschenk.  As I recall, I never once heard him claim to possess, say, compassion, good faith in others, or kindness.  Yet, he embodied those virtues, as well as others: He made them visible.

Mundschenk was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, and, as you might imagine, I discovered he was inspiring.  But not inspiring in the sense that I wanted to be like him.  Rather, inspiring in the sense he showed me that certain virtues could be honest and authentic. I was a bit too cynical as a young man to see much value in compassion, good faith, kindness, and so forth.  I thought intelligence mattered an order of magnitude more than those things.  Yet, because of Mundschenk, and a small handful of other adults, I could only deny the value of those virtues; not their authenticity.

I can see in hindsight how I naively assumed at the time that we all grow up to be true to ourselves.  Isn’t that normal for a young man or woman to make that assumption, though?  Aren’t most youth slightly shocked each time they discover that yet another adult is, in some way important to them as a youth, a fake?

Perhaps it’s only when we ourselves become an adult that we eventually accept most of us are less than true to ourselves, for by that time, we so often have discovered what we consider are good reasons not to be true to ourselves.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Rather, his notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any fronts or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform.

Often, when I remember Mundschenk, I remember the way he shrugged.  I remember some folks for their smiles, others for their voices, but Mundschenk for his shrug.  It seemed to hint of Nature’s indifference, but without the coldness.  Which, I guess, makes me wonder: Is there anything unusual about someone who is both notably indifferent to himself and notably true to himself?

I was put in mind of Paul Mundschenk this morning because of a  post I wrote for this blog three years ago.  The post was intended to be humorous, but I titled it, “An Advantage of Being Cold and Heartless?“.   Consequently, the post gets two or three hits each day from people looking for advice on how to make themselves cold and heartless.

I can imagine all sorts of reasons someone might want to make themselves cold and heartless.  Perhaps someone they are on intimate terms with — a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a partner — is wounding them.  Or perhaps they are among the social outcasts of their school.  But whatever their reasons, they google search strings like, “How do I make myself cold and heartless?”

Nowadays, I think it is a mistake to try to make yourself tough, cold, heartless, or otherwise insensitive.  But I certainly didn’t think it was a mistake 30 years ago, when I was a young man.

Yet, I see now how my values and priorities in those days were not largely derived from myself, but from others. The weight I placed on intelligence, for instance, was from fear that others might take advantage of me if I was in anyway less intelligent than them.  I valued cleverness more than compassion and kindness because I thought cleverness less vulnerable than compassion and kindness.  And I carried such things to absurd extremes: I can even recall thinking — or rather, vaguely feeling — that rocks were in some sense more valuable than flowers because rocks were less vulnerable than flowers.  The truth never once occurred to me: What we fear owns us.

It seems likely that when someone seeks to make themselves insensitive, they are seeking to protect themselves, rather than seeking to be true to themselves.   If that’s the case, then anyone who tries to make themselves less sensitive than they naturally are runs the risk of alienating themselves from themselves.

Can a person who is significantly alienated from themselves be genuinely happy?  I have no doubt they can experience moments of pleasure or joy, but can they be deeply happy?  It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  Perhaps a little bit like asking whether someone who wants a melon will feel just as happy with a pepper instead.

How Has Harry Potter Shaped Us?

Do you think it’s possible that the Harry Potter books and movies have shaped the world views of a generation or two?  If so, how have they shaped those world views?  But if not, why not?

I’m especially interested in four aspects of the question:

  • Ethics and Morals: Has the Harry Potter series formed or changed people’s ethics and morals?  Has it propagated British values? Has it placed more weight on loyalty and courage than on intelligence?
  • Science and Reason: What, if anything, has the Harry Potter series shaped or changed about people’s attitudes towards science, logic, and empirical evidence?  Has it undermined their significance?  Will the world see more or fewer scientists because of the series?
  • Religion and Spirituality:  Has the series shaped or changed anything about people’s religiosity or spirituality?  If so, what?
  • Politics: What, if anything, has the series shaped or changed about the Left/Right, Progressive/Conservative political conflict?  Has it moved anyone Left or Right on the spectrum?

I confess that I have not been paying attention to the series.  That’s not because I’m opposed to it, but because I lazy when it comes to reading fiction.  But a question on Doug’s blog got me very interested in the influence of Harry Potter on our society.  I would much appreciate your help understanding that influence.