On enlightened self-interest
On enlightened self-interest
(sent via email 2008)
Waking up into a communal and peace farm in Luck, Wisconsin gives a new meaning to "sunrise of a new day". The families and activists gathered there provided inspiration to us beyond measure. They had built their own houses, they used solar energy for electricity and heat, grew their own foods, used composting toilets, and collected rainwater for their very minimal water needs. They were also all active in the peace movement. Their activities ranged from civil disobedience at Fort Benning, Georgia to playing key roles in the Wheels of Justice bus tour. See the website http://www.anathothcommunityfarm.org/ Our bus retreat brought members from the farm and volunteers from many part of the country. This experience at the farm and in talking to such people (e.g. Kathy Kelly, Abbie Coburn, Ceylon Mooney, Lama Nassar, Bill Hill, Bob Abplanalp, Mike Miles, Cecilia Lucas, Dan Pearson, Jessie Chang, etc.). We had a great time with these inspiring people and then the nearly 200 people in the Chicago Peace Walk Sunday (see http://www.cjpip.org/ ). In Greenwich, CT, three good people who happen to be Jewish spoke from the heart about how they came to view Israel and Zionism. I could not help but think that life is really good and these are people I truly love. It is a humbling experience to jot down some thoughts about the meaning of activism, self-sacrifice, love, and enlightened self-interest. I hope you will find those hesitant meditations/observations useful.
We ask ourselves many questions as we struggle through this short life of ours. What is the nature of activism? Why do we do what we do? How much self-sacrifice are we really willing to take? What do those of us feel after lost jobs, after time in jail, after being beaten and gassed by Israeli soldiers, or after all of the above? How does one distinguish between selfishness and enlightened self-interest? Is activism for peace and justice the ultimate love of humanity or the triumph of optimism over experience? Is activism and living live simply the ultimate love of mother nature or of God? The following rambling thoughts do not intend to give answers but hopefully give us time to reflect and think (please send my your comments and I will post and share them).
Several years ago a prominent person in the Palestinian right to return movement repeatedly criticized Prof. Edward Said (then at Columbia University) for "self-interest". While some are tempted to dismiss such comments by attributing other reasons for making them (jealousy, inability to get Said to help in key areas thought important etc), the subjects of self-interest, self-sacrifice, collective work are worthy of examination when we look at what makes activists "tick", what gets us to do the things we do, and this could help us get more people involved in the movement for peace and justice and remain active even after setbacks and challenges. Edward Said was a brilliant Professor of Literature, a prominent music critic, and a noted commentator on human conditions. What motivated him and millions like him is worthy of examination but perhaps looking inward to our own motivations is a more fruitful endeavor. Perhaps we can make some comments on issues of love and enlightened self-interest that could initiate a dialogue at least with ourselves.
My background is in evolutionary biology including genetic and behavioral biology. It would not be necessary for the sake of this discussion to review the exhaustive literature on evolution of human behaviors that relates to group and individual behavior. Scientific explanations can certainly give us certain insights but they are limited. We do know that each individual human being has certain basic needs that are easily recognized: water, food, shelter, safety, social interactions, and sex. In many parts of the world with limited technological development, people still have to focus on their day to day survival: scavenging for food, finding a shelter etc. In technologically advanced societies, we still find such people represented among our ranks as the homeless in cities around Europe and North America. Such a life is described as closest to the state of affairs for much of humanity throughout much of our history. But when basic survival issues are met, we do recognize that it is very hard to live without social interactions; hence solitary confinement is the most dreaded punishment for inmates. Lack of social interactions is known to depress the immune system, cause extreme behavior changes and even lead to premature death.
Humans unlike other mammals also have concepts of self-sacrifice, collective work, and work for the common good that emanate directly from a social society. Other social animal societies (ants, bees, elephants) do show many of the features we recognize in such groupings. But humans have complex communication systems and as far as we know the only species that ponders its existence, thinks of life after death and has other concepts that we cannot observe in other life forms. We do find many animals that exhibit self-sacrificial behaviors from losing their life to feed and protect their young to domesticated dogs that jump into dangerous situations to save their human companions. But why has human societies developed such highly amazing forms of complex behaviors that involve things like standing in front of a bulldozer that aims to demolish a house of someone totally unrelated to you (Rachel Corrie)? Such behaviors call for deeper explanations (most personal) that are very hard to analyze by objective and rational thought processes.
Could one argue that Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi were driven by a pure form of self-sacrifice and altruism or by what we may term as enlightened self-interest? Are these two things distinguishable? The diaries of Mother Teresa which she did not want published disturbed many of her supporters who were shocked to learn that throughout a life time of doing good for others, she had doubts about so many things (even the existence of God). Yet, this simple women I think epitomizes the love of the poor more than we can imagine. That love is the issue that we should start with when discussing sacrifice and enlightened self-interest.
Love between a child and a parent involve significant sacrifices and maybe the easiest to understand in linking biology (genetic relationship), learned behaviors, and perhaps much more. In ancient China, children sometimes cut off pieces of their own flesh to feed an ailing or starving parent. Caring for immediate family members is biologically ingrained for the obvious reason that they share some of our genes. But the human intellectual and social development produced other traits that sometimes overcome the biological wiring. Think of the love and sacrifice for adopted children for example. Think of people who donate to the point of impoverishing themselves to help children in far away places. These are not so easily explained by biology. The love of couples to each other also cannot be reduced to biological needs or even social needs. The caring of the people living at a communal farm for each other is obviously much more than their needs or desires. It is something much more profound and much less analyzable than mere language or analytic logic can describe.
The role of religion and morality cannot be underestimated. I think of how people like Clarence Jordan was raised as a privileged white man in the segregated south of the 1940s and 1950s and opposed wars (all wars including WWII and Vietnam). Learning ancient languages and learning what Jesus really taught transformed him. His faith led him to challenge the comfortable clergy in the south and then move on to establish Koinonia farms in Georgia where blacks and whites lived and worked together. They got firebombed and attacked frequently but never gave up. As I listened to his tapes, I am always impressed by the sense of optimism and the general goodness. His vision was validated while he lived and validated after he died (Habitats for Humanity was founded at Koinonia farms). I think of Dorothy Day ("my job is to comfort the afflicted and make the comfortable less comfortable"), Martin Luther King Jr (his vehement rejection of wars is forgotten by a government that names streets after him), Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Sheikh Mohammad Hussain, Father Naeem Atik, Abouna Hanna Atallah, Father Elias Chakour and countless others. A while back I started compiling names of people we honor at my website (http://www.qumsiyeh.org/honorlist/) but that task would be endless since there are literally millions of people, most of them we have never met. But even that task would be rather simple compared to the task of understanding what made one of these activists do what they do or did.
We can safely state as Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." But Mead cannot tell us why these people became committee or thoughtful. What makes a Kathy Kelly or a Clarence Jordan?
We can safely say indeed that human societies evolved in spite of sometimes incredible odds precisely because of such thoughtful committed (I would add loving) people. A good example of such a historical study is Howard Zinn's "A people history of the United states"). US historical development has shown that pure individual altruism is hard to come by but that enlightened self-interest was critical in key developments in the US going back hundreds of years. Advocates for native American rights helped save thousands of natives from the European colonial onslaught. These were examples of Enlightened Self-Interest (ESI). ESI drove abolitionists (white and black) to save thousands of slaves before the civil war. Reconciliation after the Civil War was also an example of ESI. ESI also got us the women's right to vote in the US elections (happened only in the 1920s). ESI got us the 40-hour workweek and other workers rights. ESI is what ended the war on Vietnam. It is what ended 30 years of US support to Apartheid South Africa (the State Department had designated Nelson Mandela and African National Congress as terrorist organizations). None of these actions were done by people who thought their actions were 100% altruistic. All thought they were doing what we now understand as enlightened self-interest. Many of them thought (many of us think) in fact that it is the only meaningful way to live.
Ofcourse many individuals may think they are engaged in ESI when they are not (or even when they are even racist or bigots). Members of many artificial grouping (including extended family, co-religionists, nation, people who think alike) have taken up arms against "others" that by definition did not belong to the self-defined grouping. These are actually the primary cause of wars and conflicts around the world. And as any independent and rational observer knows, there are no winners in wars only losers.
We can explain ESI in terms of nagging conscience, morality, religion, logic, psychological hedonism, or any combination thereof but we cannot deny its existence and widespread impact on human history. For example, I talked to people who think of Jesus as a Son of God, those who think of him as a prophet of God, and those who don't believe in God and all have agreed that Jesus lived on earth and did give of himself for humanity even as they differ on what his message was (would it not be good to acknowledge the example he provided?) or that it had a huge impact on human history.
We can cite genetic and behavioral studies to show that self-sacrifice for the group is a trait that does exist and evolve in mammalian societies. My son actually did a simulation via computer programming with random mutations and noted that group behaviors evolved that included altruism; It evolved without being programmed or encouraged so clearly groups that show these behaviors benefit. We can cite religious reasons for doing good to others even at the expense of our material well being (this is also enlightened self-interest as we think of ourselves as vessels and tools of God). We can cite moral or other reasons for helping others even if we are not religious (agnostic or atheist) such as a livable human and humane society. We can each come up with many ways of looking at these issues but again I think it is something deeply personal and that is where it must come from.
But we need not look beyond our own personal experiences to find who the people we admire are. If you take a moment to think of the person you personally knew/met that you most admire (whether they are still alive or dead). If you think what qualities made you admire this person. If you then think of what motivates that person. I think these are things that provide the best and most meaningful personal lessons for each of us. For me it was an uncle who was the first Zoologist in Palestine and who was killed in 1970 right after he finished his PHD (and after he had already made significant scientific and other contributions to humanity). His letters and motivation to help not just his relatives but humanity as a whole made a difference in my own life. Reading his letters and notes years later and speaking to his close friends showed me that he had truly epitomized the Buddhist statement of "having joyful participation in the sorrows of this world." I am sure each of us knows someone like that (either dead or alive).
The English language has limitations in describing the source of these desires that add to positive energy in the world. They are described differently by different people or even by the same person in different stages of understanding. They are deeply personal. Perhaps those who have the best skill to describe these emotions and desires are poets and we should read them more. My own favorite poet is Kahlil Gibran. For me his meditation on love speak directly to the issues at hand.
On Love, from The PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran
When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather,
"I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
Send your comments and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
REACTIONS TO ABOVE:
I'm not sure why I am an activist. So many confluences of events, feelings, thoughts, experiences, etc., are probably why I have arrived at the point where I am now. But, I honestly can say that I have a need to give more love to others. I am unable to have more children and that has always pained my heart, so I suppose if I can turn it around by being an activist, then the love has somewhere to go and be of use. I don't believe in wasted love; only in loving with a purpose, thanks for this article, kindly, Martha Perez
Dear Mazin: Your random thoughts somehow match my own in many ways. Is it any accident that Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet has been my special inspiration all my life? That when I won the English prize at my prep school I used the money to go buy all the rest of his books? That long before you were born, I was a young schoolgirl cherishing Gibran's words on love, children, marriage, wisdom.... Of course, it wasn't just me; Gibran's Prophet went through dozens of printings here in America from 1927 on; I think my copy was of the 17th edition. The passage you quote is one that I memorized myself at least 60 years ago; it's profound, and so true....
And when it comes to personal example and inspiration, I imbibed admiration for my ancestor Roger Williams from earliest childhood. Of course, my relatives all saw him in their own terms, but I latched on to his concern for the Indians, for freedom of speech and religion, for helping the underdog, for maintaining his principles despite being banished from Boston, etc. etc. etc. He was, in many ways, a man like you, dedicated to truth and justice, following wherever it led him no matter what the cost. (He often mentioned that he had a brother who was a "Turkey merchant," i.e. a man who traded from England to the eastern Mediterranean, and that he himself had learned his principles of toleration from recognizing that even the Turks had a right to worship God as they saw fit.) He ultimately died in poverty and no one even knows where he is buried, even though he was revered as a founder of Rhode Island. But he is also generally recognized as the father of the Bill of Rights in American jurisprudence, a tremendous gift not only to America but to the world.
Why do I write all this? Simply to let you know that you have another supporter and friend in this tremendous struggle for Palestinian justice and for human integrity. I've been following and supporting Palestinian issues since even before Penny Rosenwasser of Middle East Children's Alliance spoke to the class I was teaching back in 1992. But since meeting you and reading your book, Palestine has become one of my primary concerns. And I'm doing all the small things I can to help achieve peace and justice for all in that troubled part of the world. (Most recently, my letter in the Hartford Courant yesterday morning.)
I don't have time now for more rumination. But keep up the good work and keep up your hopes. My prayers and good wishes are with you and your family.
Sincerely, Ruth Moynihan
Thank you for another thought provoking essay.
I don't always mind selfishness -- it depends on the condition and concept of the self involved! A broad self which intermingles with all others (including environment) ought to be as selfish as it can be. Thus when making negative remarks I'll say "narrow self-interest" rather than concede the issue by criticizing the general concept of "self-interest."
You use of "Enlightened Self-interest" suggests an additional formulation. We use "enlightened self-interest" to mean a better form of self-interest. But in reading your essay it occurs to me that we can divide the phrase up differently so that it means "the interests of the enlightened self," meaning the broader concept of self.
Please keep rambling, I find it well worth following.
The question of enlightened self-interest for a biologist, especially one interested in behavior, is, "What is the imagination, where is it, and how does it work among the other brain functions?"
Do I have to persuade you that all explicit knowledge occurs in the imagination (Aquinas, from Aristotle, but also in accordance with Plato's riddle about the cave, which is (what else?) the imagination)? Do you see my point? Is the theory viable? Do you get my idea? All three key terms, "see," "theory", and "idea" relate, yes, to imagery. We know by imagery. What we know otherwise, such as skills and compassion, are far more important, but cannot be conveyed in language nor, therefore, made the basis of social accountability. We cannot require ourselves or each other to do well or care, but we can expect (another form of "see", as in "spectacles" or "respect") ourselves and each other to see what is front of our faces.
What, then, is "the self"? It is the protagonist in the plot with which we consider what we "see" in our minds, our imaginations. I care about Palestine. I don't care about Palestine. These two ideas have different plots because they have two different protagonists.
The biologist might wish that we did not have imaginations and their "explicit knowledge" (a Latin professor provided me with two Latin terms for knowledge, so I could make my motto in Latin, "I know what I saw": "explicit knowledge" (as she called it) via "cognovi" ("with-knowing") and "implicit knowledge" via "scivi" (as in "science")).
A biologist, that is, might wish we could see and know without mediation like a dog knows. Thomistic philosophers have a term, "propriative sense", for how a dog knows and what it knows: it knows what is good for it.
My suggestion to you is to recall and celebrate that all our knowledge, to the extent we know we have it--that is, our explicit and therefore communicable knowledge--is in the imagination. This understanding bridges the gap between those who insist that facts ("facts on the ground" as Israelis like to say?) do not allow discussion and those who reject the very notion of facts ("that's your reality; it's not mine").
If we could study the imagination, we'd find what philosophers have known for thousands of years. If we are very careful, our fragile intellects (a term meaning "to infer", "to select among", a process which is fragile given the material of the apparatus and its volitions) can arrive at some tentative but effective understanding of some crisis that possess us. "Crisis" means "time to choose", from the Greek krinein, to sift or select.
It is as if you worked in a laboratory in a university all made out of gelatin shuddering at the slightest touch, vaguely transparent, oddly colored. This is the human imagination, the sole locus of explicit knowledge, of understanding. The mind's eye, that is, is a gooey mass of millions of neurons whose function is to model and constitute a self "under standing" the organism in which the neurons reside. Standing under.
Those lawyers over at Yale Law School might mention, in answer to your question about the self and self-interest, the "homunculus" theory that I heard discussed in the class on contracts in law school here in Maine ten years ago. The theory is an attack on the notion of human responsibility. (What is the target of your theory, or of mine? Is truth the target? Can truth be targeted, or only surrendered to?) By this theory, there is a control room in the mind (brain?) in which sits the homunculus ("little human") who decides freely, but inside the head of this homunculus there must be another homunculus, and so on. Therefore, there is no little human, so there is no decider.
So might the lawyers like to think (except of themselves). But I would reply now, ten years too late, that there is a control room in the brain, that science is almost ready to map: nerve-for-nerve mappings of retina sensors to brain vision centers--video monitors in the brain, for instance. In this control room, with its video monitors, allowing attention either to almost-real-time visual reports or to memories or expectations, and other intra-brain information channels is our freedom. For this is a control room that needs no operator but which constitutes itself, like a state constitutes itself. "If there is a light on, there is someone home." The brain is generating a self as long as the imagination, there in the brain, functions.
The detail that led me into this consideration was noticing that there is a time lag between something happening and my noticing it--the word "notice" being both rather ambiguous and after all rather legalistic. You can react to something properly before you know what it is, because "know" has both senses, explicit (with its time lag, allowing the datum to reach the imagination after leaving the vision, etc., centers) and implicit (which might even be handled, like some reflexes, in spinal cord loops without even reaching the brain at all). So explicit is an after-thought. All thought is after-thought. All understanding is standing outside (under is outside, right?). We are in that sense always "beside ourselves", which is a pejorative in English, meaning the person is out of control. The word "control" means to watch from outside, a "contra" account being a parallel account to monitor another account in medieval accounting practices. Etc., etc. All roads lead to this idea of imagination as the seat of understanding and thus to understanding being somewhat if not entirely beside the point.
But if freedom is beside the point, and where else do we have freedom but in our ideas (die Gedanken sind frei: the thoughts are free), then what is the goal of human activity? The only people or only partisans who dislike this restriction of freedom to a small sector of the brain are those who have an exaggerated idea of freedom in the first place, the sort of idea by which they invade other countries out of a vague sense of discomfort. Rather than wonder if it is guilt, they tell themselves and each other, "Enough thought!--we know what we know, and we must attack Iraq because otherwise we would go crazy!" If you said to them, "You indeed think what you think, but what makes you think it is so?" and asked them for evidence that might move you as it moved them, they would reject, perhaps, the idea of yours that their idea had an earthly origin in something they'd seen and taken up into their imaginations. But equally, they might thank you for reminding them that all knowledge in the sense of understandible propositions begins with sense experience--you might lead them back to, to use Aldous Huxley's book title, "The Doors of Perception" and thence out into the world beyond understanding, the world of everyday, the world of skill and compassion--the unimaginable world of what-is.
I find, you know, your term "enlightened self-interest" to be overly ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. I would urge you to refine and restrict your key definitions and terms. Better to offend a little by requiring someone to clarify terms with you than to offend a lot by use of ambiguous terms that lead to unreliable understandings and treacherous agreements.
I repeat my hunch that if you said to a hundred US people "The Jewish state should give Jews more rights than non-Jews", ninety nine would disagree. So all we're talking about here is evidence testing propositions that are being presently "sold" as self-evident (which is perhaps a play on the other self, the enlightened self and its interests).
The word "interest" has an interesting history, according to my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary: ME, prob. alter. of earlier interesse, fr. AF & ML, fr. L, to be between, make a difference, concern, fr. inter- + esse to be -- more at IS.
What connects two beings? There are two main possibilities. Either both are hypothetical beings in a diagram, or you are one being and there is another being. Is there something between you and this other in that latter case? Imagination: that is the first word in any satisfactory explanation of any answer to that question. That is to say, based on whatever you say about a connection or absence of connection, "what makes you think so?" That is, "how do you think of anything; how do you distinguish your various thoughts, and, doing your best, skillfully and compassionately, what makes you think so in this case?"
I would like to see a racist look a member of the despised "race" in the eye and say anything like "you don't exist to me". You can't wish away the evidence contrary to your wished-for beliefs when the eye is stronger than the mind.
So the biologist can take solace, in her despair at this unworkable organ called the imagination, that we have a reliable means to keep it under control, by opening our eyes, and, as a group, advising each other to do the same. It begins with looking your neighbor in the eye and making sure she sees you. Where does she come from as she makes her way to seeing you before her: from her understanding, out of her imagination, into the here and now. You can almost track the physiology at work as she makes that journey.
The imagination is intensely wired into the rest of the brain, not only the eyes, but the facial muscles, the vocal cords, etc.
So understanding is always interconnected with the skills and compassion, and who knows what else, that complete the package we call human experience. As the classic phrase has it, we are human beings, or, grammatically corrected, we are humans being. That is, we are bodies imagining ourselves, bodies assigning (with signs) or noticing (with notices) being to ourselves. The only self that matter, to conclude, is the physical self.
It is how we take care of this physical self that characterizes our spiritual selves. For spirit is not physical. To identify those two is idolatry, and in the current regime, the very popular idolatry, as for instance in the claim that we can force Jesus come and take us to heaven if we merely help Zionists murder Palestinians.
Imagination is the clue to distinguishing the physical from the spiritual. If we regard it as not a theater, as I like usually to do, but rather as a courtroom, then in that courtroom we have two kinds of entities: facts and law. The physical world enters the imagination as sensory data, as facts enter the courtroom via witnesses and exhibits. The spiritual world is what the imagination does with the sensory data, generally either letting it be what it is or distorting it by wishful/greedy/fearful thinking, just as law takes those facts in the courtroom and either does them justice with good law/s or runs roughshot over them with bad law/s.
Thanks for reading.
Christopher C. Rushlau
Thank you for the thought provoking philosophical piece. In responding to it I shall first analyze my own act of responding and try to understand myself and explain to others what is it that motivates me to do so and through that to formulate my own concept regarding the phenomenon of enlightened self interest (ESI). I am aware of the danger of the circuitous logic inherent in such an attempt . Still I am willing to try at the risk of perhaps sounding less than convincing.
Though I never met you, I am an admirer and have been reading your various postings. So, by responding to your call for comments on what you wrote I am paying myself a certain complement by putting myself in the same class of committed Palestinian activists and involved intellectuals. Perhaps I am also attracted by the promise you made of posting responses to your piece. After all, such posting serves as a form of self promotion to circles of better-informed academicians involved in seeking peace and justice for Palestinians, a group that I would probably have joined myself had I not gotten preoccupied by my medical career. In both of these aspects there is a certain gain for me, which I will try to discount from the balance of my account as I tally up credit to myself against debt I owe to humanity at large as exemplified by all the ‘selfless’ figures you mention and as embodied by you in your ‘selfless’ acts.
This brings me to my statement of principle: There is no such thing as a selfless act. That is why it is better to stay with your term of 'enlightened self interest'. I assume my statement is not news to anyone steeped in philosophy, which I am not. I am making this statement based on my analysis of my own actions throughout my over half a century of adult life. I wish at this early point in my rambling-on to make the cautionary disclaimer that I speak of my own career and experience and mean what I say to reflect on no one else.
So first let me say a few words about myself: I was born in 1937 In Arrabeh Village in the Galilee at the height of the Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate for its sympathy with and accommodation of the designs of the Zionist Movement on our land. On my eleventh birthday, Israel was officially declared an independent state, marking our Nakba. We, the few Palestinians who remained on their land, found ourselves on the wrong side of the border, a leaderless and alienated minority in an enemy state. For 18 years we were placed under oppressive military rule and ‘our state’ has proven to be most inventive in its persistent grap for our land.
As subsistence olive farmers my family sacrificed much to put me through the Nazareth Municipal High School. Two years later, in 1960, I struck out with a total of $500 to study medicine in the USA. In 1970, having obtained Harvard degrees in Medicine and Public Health and turning down several lucrative offers in America, I returned with my Hawaiian wife, a teacher, to Arrabeh and found employment with the Ministry of Health (MOH) in my field of specialty. The dearth of physicians in my region forced me to double as solo village general practitioner (GP). I lasted for six years before I could take it no more. I found my Public Health work unproductive in light of state systems openly hostile to Arab citizens. This included policies of massive land confiscation that led to a mini uprising by my people, known thereafter as Land Day. Frustrated and angry, in 1976 I moved with my wife and two children to Hawaii. After two years of vacillating we returned home to the Galilee and to the same setting and jobs we had left. I started looking for a way around the discriminatory and antagonistic governmental system in which I worked. Within three years I and three other disgruntled local physicians established a non-governmental organization, the Galilee Society, dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority in Israel. This NGO became the conduit for my professional endeavors actively challenging the system of which I was formally a part and to which, for pragmatic considerations, I continued to hold for another ten years. The MOH, under Ehud Olmert as a minister, eventually ejected me and I became persona non grata in my former professional home. For four additional years I continued to use the NGO service sector as a means of consciousness raising and community mobilization. I reached out to international circles and built alliances with like-minded minority rights activists abroad. This, together with a confrontation with the Israeli military-industrial complex over environmental protection of the Galilee, apparently was beyond the tolerance of all concerned. In 1995 I found myself out of a job at The Galilee Society, the institution I created and led for a decade and a half. On my way to retirement I then served briefly as a consultant to UNICEF’s mission to The Palestinian National Authority before returning to my home village to establish Elrazi Center for Child Rehabilitation, the first facility of its kind in an Arab rural community in Israel.
I have always enjoyed penning down my thoughts. But, alas, I became a physician. With the mounting demands on my time, I found an easy-out; I shifted to recording my ‘compositions’, my soul-searching diatribes, and my confessions, on audiotapes that I stored away never to hear again. The act of facing myself across the page or vocally, not the content, had the therapeutic effect I sought in my many hours of need. The above brief biography encapsulates what I have selected out of the massive amount of my written and audio-memoirs for publication by Pluto Press of London under the title “A Doctor in Galilee, the Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel” due out on the market this June. As I sat down to sift through the accumulated records of my life I found it a daunting exercisein self-reinterpretation. Some of the sensitive recorded episodes of soul searching and self-questioning were emotionally devastating to listen to. Especially the audiotapes captured not only the words spoken, but also my mood and emotions. In retrospect, it is clear that much of the material would be highly charged, for it was when I sought to relieve myself of mental anguish that I turned to this escape rout. On occasion, the narrator on those tapes sounded so downcast, defeated and tormented that he would mumble under his breath; he would recoil, dim-out and hide behind his inaudible speech. I could hardly make out the words or guess at the content. Had it been on videotape, the body language would have been something to behold.
Now I shall return to our point, the meaning of ESI and why do we do what we do taking your own cue of “looking inward to our own motivation”. As I have stated already, to me there is no such thing as self-sacrifice but only self-interest with the endless range of qualifications from 'evil' to various degrees of 'enlightenment'. I happen to know personally a few of the names you list in your “hesitant meditations” as those “I think of” in connection with selfless acts and exemplary lives of sacrifice for others. I find it hard to exempt any of them from the applicability of my relativist scale of self-interest, with the exception perhaps of Jesus and Rachel Corrie whose premeditated crucifixion sanctifies their memory beyond my iconoclastic thoughts.
Leaving others alone for the moment I shall return to my own experience and convictions as displayed in the above described book of memoirs. In listening for the first time to my own audio-memoirs that I had kept over some thirty five years of professional life as a rural solo GP and a public health practitioner, I kept asking myself repeatedly why did I do what I did when I had lucrative alternative options at Harvard and in Hawaii. It turned out that throughout those years I kept debating that question and repeatedly addressing it to myself on tape. It had kept my life in focus for me as I repeatedly reminded myself of what was in it for me. Very early on, in 1978, during a period when I took my family to live and practice in Hawaii, a venture that lasted only two years, I realized that my life would be meaningless there. Here is the relevant and revealing entry from that period from my book of memoirs:
“It was difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of turning our backs on my promising medical career in the US, and on the paradise of Didi’s native state of Hawaii, where we had for a time considered settling. But head back to the Galilee and Arrabeh we did nonetheless. After all, that was why I studied medicine; any other decision would have robbed me of the rationale for accepting a profession I would never have chosen on my own. People in Arrabeh tell of the village simpleton who bought a donkey. When asked why he needed a donkey, he answered:
'To carry loads of grass from the fields.'
'But you own no cattle! What do you need the grass for?'
'To feed my donkey, of course!'
That is how it would have been for me to have settled and practiced medicine in America."
This is a clear case of self-interest. I needed to keep my psychological balance, to keep a grip on my sanity. I would have gone crazy practicing a profession that my family and community had drummed into my head in the first place outside of that same community. And I was lucky to have realized that before I got entrapped in the quagmire of Arrabeh’s simpleton's analogy.
On another occasion I face up to the same quandary on tape by admitting that I wanted to be “a big fish in a small pond,” that it would have been too strenuous a struggle to gain prominence through the Harvard public health/nutrition research team where I was offered a position. In Arrabeh I was prominent by definition, without even trying. Again and again I find myself admitting to myself on tape that I had returned to Arrabeh because of my vanity:
“During that decade 1960-70 I had obtained degrees in medicine and public health from Harvard University and completed an internship at the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was Arrabeh’s first son ever to leave to study abroad, a historic moment made possible by my father’s agreement to sell some of his farming land to pay my way and by the charity of a childless American couple, Byrd and Amie Davis of Clarion, Pennsylvania, who had become my pen pals after meeting me during a visit to Nazareth. They sponsored me through college and, at the end of my studies, offered to adopt me and leave me their considerable fortune as an inheritance should I agree to carry on the family banking business in their hometown. Tempting though the offer was, rejecting it did not delay me long. As soon as I had reached the point in my medical training where I mustered the skill and fortitude to stand before another human and tell him or her what to do with their body, I rushed home to play God to my friends and next of kin. I had studied medicine so that one day I could return to repay the debt to my community. I was committed to the professional life of a physician, to a life dedicated to healing bodies, to guiding and uplifting spirits, and to improving the living conditions of my village -- a life, in short, dedicated to saving humanity through serving my people. More than a little optimistically, I thought I was going to change the world."
True, the decision meant spending many sleepless nights and fighting an uphill struggle against an airtight system of neglect and discrimination by "my" government and the Zionist majority in Israel. To anyone looking from the outside, it would seem a reasonable example of altruistic community service and self sacrifice. But I know better. At the bottom of it were my own, perhaps unexplainable, personal psychological needs.
When I reached the clear conclusion that there is little to be gained by working from within the system, I devised a scheme that brought me quickly to the forefront of the nascent civil society movement in the Palestinian community in Israel. I established the Galilee Society and spearheaded its mission of campaigning for better health and development for my community for some fifteen years. Suffice it to say that the Galilee Society http://www.gal-soc.org/en/ survived my departure and that it and two of its daughter organizations, Adalah http://adalah.org and Ittijah http://ittijah.org still count for much in the current civil society movement in our community. To me that is the main professional contribution I have made in my career as a public health specialist. Of course it was a steep uphill struggle all the way through. Yet I drew satisfaction not only from fighting an unfair system and from alerting the world community to our existence and existential struggle but also from knocking at so many doors and meeting so many significant figures internationally. That and the many gains I reaped for my people, I realize now in retrospect, are difficult to separate from the self aggrandizement and pleasure that I derived from the process itself. Not only did it bring me name recognition throughout my community but even a citation of merit from the late President Mitterrand of France. I have always enjoyed meeting new people and going to new places. And that I did secure for myself through the establishment and nurturing of the Galilee Society. Obviously, as seen from this critical angle, it was a self-serving endeavor.
Again and again the theme of self-aggrandizement pops up on those tapes: In the summer of 1990, as the first gulf war was brewing, my family and I were vacationing in Hawaii and pressure was brought on us by relatives and friends to extend our vacation and perhaps stay there for good. Here is the rationale I found for returning to the Galilee, as recorded on tape in real time:
“We mull over our decision to return to our home in Israel against the advice of friends and exhortation of relatives. We try to dismiss doom’s-day predictions of Saddam targeting Israel with his missiles with their expected payload of poison gas or deadly germs.
'Still, why should sane people like us, sitting in their swimming shorts here at water’s edge in Hawaii, turn away from the easy choice of continuing their vacation in paradise a while longer? Why go back to the eye of the storm?' Didi wonders.
'I try to tell myself that it is not sheer obstinacy or romantic attachment that is at the base of my insistence to go back home to Israel. There is a consideration that transcends my obligation to be there to offer my professional services should disaster strike my community. It is beyond our physical survival. It is the hope, conceited as it may sound, that my voice, and not only my profession, will count for something in such hour of need. My worst-case scenario is ethnic cleansing of Palestinians again. War breaks out and Israel takes the opportunity to throw us out of its still-undetermined borders as refugees. Regardless of who strikes first, a general war in the area directly involving Israel will provide its transfer strategists with the perfect cover to drive all Palestinians -- including us, the near-million minority of its citizens -- out of our homes and to deposit the survivors in the lap of UNRWA, as yet another batch of Palestinian refugees to deal with. Under the guise of war-time measures a news blackout can be imposed and the go-ahead given for the generals to activate their readymade contingency plans, or what Israelis call their ‘drawer plans’, for driving us out. This is the crux of my argument in favor of returning immediately home and staying put in Arrabeh regardless of everything. In such a development my voice and international connections may count for something in informing the world.’”
Clearly this is a case of self-aggrandizement. But despite my recognizing it as such in due time, we still did go back to Galilee before war broke out and we had to suffer the tense nerve-racking days sitting in our sealed rooms awaiting the scud missiles. To the outside world it may sound like self-sacrifice in the spirit of service to my community. But I know otherwise; I can read it, at least for the sake of my current argument, as an ego trip at the expense of my wife and children.
To close off this rambling bit of self flagellation, I will state for the last time that for me, on balance, there is no such thing as self-sacrifice and that we all are the beneficiaries of the self-interest component of our ‘acts of valor’ made more palatable by the self-serving qualifier ‘enlightened’. I even can sense the derivation of some pleasure from this admission itself, and from stating what I have just stated, and so on ad-infinitum.
Circuitous and self-serving, you say? Yes, I agree!
Hatim Kanaaneh, MD, MPH