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Catching Up August 17, 2008

Posted by Beth in Miscellaneous Musings.

I recently had the amazing experience of reconnecting with my best friend from high school. (Thanks Mickey for making the effort to find me!!)  In order to “catch up” and re-intertwine our lives, we are starting an email exchange, sharing who we are.  What a fantastic opportunity to take time out and think about who I am, what I believe and how I came here. As I was editing my initial attempt, I thought I would like to share this inner glimpse with other friends. I don’t think we spend enough time really getting to know one another. Here’s a start. I hope some of you will share back.


Here’s that glimpse at part of who I am:


After high school I went to Earlham College, a Quaker school.  I was drawn to it mainly because of two aspects of Quaker philosophy: its pacifism, and its teaching that each individual has his own inner light. How I understand the concept of inner light is that it has to do with the unique value of each person, and that each person must search out the truth for himself. (That’s not an accurate portrayal of the Quaker concept, but it’s what I took from it.) During Sunday meetings, Quakers don’t have ministers or priests to “tell you the truth.”  Instead, everyone sits in quiet contemplation. A type of meditation, if that is what is desired, or a time to think and sort things out yourself.  If “moved” to do so, a person can stand and share his thoughts with the community.  I liked the emphasis placed on the value of each individual as an individual.


Another way that value manifests itself in Quaker belief and practice is the concept of consensus.  Since each individual is the source of his own grasp of truth, each individual’s voice in the community is valued. Decisions are made through discussion. Important decisions must be made by consensus: everyone has to agree. Functionally, this can also mean that a person who disagrees can stand aside in order for the decision to proceed, but there must be at least that much agreement.  In this way, the majority can not coerce the minority, even a minority of one. I don’t think consensus is practical in larger society, but I do still strongly believe in the sanctity of an individual’s life and their right to be free from coercion.


For a long time I admired the principled stance Quakers take on pacifism. I still admire much about the non-violent methods they promote, methods embodied in the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But, I was always troubled by the denouncement of violence when used in self-defense.  Something felt wrong and yet at the time I didn’t have a good argument one way or the other.


In medical school, I was quite involved in Physicians for Social Responsibility. This group’s central purpose was (is?) to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This was during the early eighties and at the height of the Cold War and MAD. PSR advocated unilateral disarmament for the United States. In residency, I remained involved with the group. My ideas were challenged by a fellow resident who later became my closest friend for the next 20+ years. That was Jane.  I can still clearly recall a conversation in the hospital doctors’ lounge when in exasperation I blurted out:  “I don’t think there is any way to figure out what is right and what is wrong. It all just comes down to how a person feels!” Jane jumped on that one and countered: “There is a way to figure it out. It’s philosophy. You start with metaphysics, then epistemology, then….”

She gave me an article by Ayn Rand, “Philosophy, Who Needs It,” and invited me to come listen to some lectures on Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism.


That was the start of a deep and intense reexamination of how to think about the world. Many of the ideas immediately resonated with me: the importance of the individual; the essential focus on facts and reality; the efficacy of the human mind for observing and evaluating the world. Objectivism has provided me with a crucial framework and an explicit method for analyzing and evaluating every aspect of my life.


Case in point: I was finally able to sort out my confusion about pacifism and self-defense.  The problem is the Quaker focus on violence as the ultimate evil. Objectivism demonstrates that violence used in self-defense is pro-life. The ultimate wrong is not violence but the initiation of force. Force (including violent force) used in self-defense against those who initiate it, is the pro-life action. Those who choose to initiate force (even non-violent force) are the ones guilty of violating others’ individual right to their own life. True respect for individual life means the consistent denouncement of the initiation of force. The key to consensus is consent: convince me, or leave me alone.   


Any way, it was a revolution in my way of approaching my life that continues to provide a means of sorting out facts and prioritizing my values. The power of human reason continues to fill me with awe.


If you want to see one out-growth of my application of Objectivism to my life, you can check out my relatively new adventure: another blog


The journey continues.





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