Liz Goodrich recommended me to Dan. She asked if it was okay to send some Redmond folks my way. It sure is. Especially if they are of Dan's caliber. Dan and I share a deep sense of curiosity and I enjoyed learning about how Dan's has shaped his experiences. He exuded kindness and humility and openly admitted to his accumulation of information and knowledge and experiences as having helped him change his mind on some pretty significant social issues. I like that. I'm pretty sure we could all (me, too) use some mind-changing. And the time is now. You can put off some other things tomorrow, but let's get right down to it today.
Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
Well, I would say that much as I strive to have a broader point of view that it's not entirely possible to get away from being a white male that was raised in a middle class family, so I definitely have that heritage. My dad was a dentist. And I did not really understand the concept of people that had needs until I went away to college. And until I started getting out into the world a little bit more. I knew intellectually that there were people out there that were poor. When I was growing up, people were always talking about the poor, starving people in China, so I knew it was there; I just had never witnessed it. I think that when I talk about who I am, you can't entirely extract that background. It's there to be aware of. Things changed when I went to college - a small Jesuit college in Denver, called Regis College - and they particularly changed when I went into medicine. I was very conservative when I arrived at medical school - voted for Reagan and saw his inaugural parade. But when I was in medical school and working like you do in medical school with underprivileged populations and then again in internship in Sacramento with UC Davis, you work with people that are underprivileged every day. And their needs and their problems are right up front. So, a lot of the religious feelings and right-wing philosophical feelings that sort of governed me at that time.... I either had to kind of deny what I was seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears or change.
So, at this point in life, I'm somebody that would like to see the world be a place where people don't have to worry about healthcare; they don't have to worry about basic needs. I don't need everybody in the world to have the exact same amount of money, but I would like to see a world in which nobody is starving or without shelter. And I think that's a doable project. So, at this stage of my life, even given where I came from, women's rights - because we can't make the world that I'm talking about without full participation from everybody that lives in the world, not just half of the population (the male half) - women's rights are incredibly important to me. Also influenced by the fact that I have a daughter that is one of the best parts of my life, as are my three sons. Let's see if I can bring this back down. I'm an evidence-based person that feels as though the problems that face the environment and face the human race are solvable. I'll leave it there. I feel like if we listen to each other and look carefully for evidence-based solutions that we can get it done.
What matters to you? What motivates you?
In a broad sense, curiosity motivates me. I have always been curious about things. I think, in the end, curiosity is what saved me from being locked into any one political philosophy in that if somebody wrote something well or presented a study that was well done, it always caught my eye. And I find it hard to reject well-said, evidence-based points of view. So, curiosity - trying to figure out what the heck is going on in this world that we live in. Why is it so hard to put these things together? How is it that so many people who live in the countryside because they love nature are the same people that vote for policies that are absolutely destructive of the very environment that they live in? And trying to figure out how to make things better for all the species on the planet (laughs). I know that sounds awfully far off in the tree hugger category, but I feel like humans are part of a network. I do not feel like we are the be all and the end all of creation - that everything pointed towards the development of humans. I think we're one part of the whole web and I feel like if we focus on that a little bit more that not only would humans do better, but also the environment that we live in. So, curiosity... that's been really helpful to me. I just had a hard time keeping my hands off of things that came along and seemed really interesting to me.
Back in the early '70s, reading about global warming and thinking, Wow, that doesn't seem right to me. It doesn't seem like man could alter the climate on such a large scale. But the evidence was that we at least needed to look at it. So, that's coming up on 50 years of information on that. And it changed my mind. From somebody who was politically very right-wing and really didn't feel like there was that much damage you could do to the environment to somebody who.... actually, my mom gave me Rachel Carson's [Silent Spring]... her book about the potential effect of mankind on the ocean. I was in grade school when I read that and, because of the curiosity part, that got through to me.
So who I am - I'm very interested in people; I'm very interested in stories. I was raised in a fairly typical homophobic way when I was growing up - typical for that age, for that time in history. My dad was homophobic. And in college, I started to meet people who were gay and I liked 'em. And I had to make the decision to either find out where they're coming from and what's this all about or step back and harden myself and insist that gay people had something wrong with them. Later on in life, I had sort of a sub-specialty in AIDS and treating people with HIV. And that was because the infectious disease guy in the town that I was working in at that time, for religious reasons was very anti-gay and he would tell gay, HIV-positive males that he didn't like working with gay men. And so the residency program that I was teaching in at that time took over treatment of HIV-positive people. And through that, I got really used to being hugged by men that were being affectionate and being flirted with from time to time. Again, it was curiosity. Curiosity about this new disease. Curiosity about how this is affecting people that have a disease that we don't have an answer for yet. What is this lifestyle about? And meeting partners who, to me, seemed to have more going in their relationship than many heterosexual couples did. So, the curiosity thing has really powered me through. So, I'm a curious person.
What concerns you? What gives you a heavy heart?
I have a heavy heart when people are so hardened in their points of view - left and right - that they have stopped listening. I feel really discouraged when I see people, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, shutting the door on any new knowledge. It makes me sad. On the flip side, I get really emotional when I hear a success story, when I hear that somebody has changed their position in life because they opened their heart and mind to a new point of view in life.
What do we mean to each other on an individual basis?
I'm no longer religious. I don't have religious faith. I was a very devout Catholic and I was, at one point, signed up to join a seminary - a Franciscan seminary. One of the things that I think will never be out of my consciousness is a Catholic concept of the body of Christ even though I don't think that Christ is God or divine. I think that the notion of the body of Christ that the Catholic church had - which is that we are all linked; we are all in this together; and that when you see somebody on the street that is not doing well, that that person is part of you and you are part of them - is an incredibly valuable concept whether you believe in an interventional god or not. I don't intend to let go of that perspective. So on a practical scale, I'm pretty introverted and I don't go out... when you say, What do we mean to each other? - I don't go out actively looking to form a lot of new relationships because each one's a commitment and sometimes I feel like I have plenty of commitments as it is, but I feel that politically, I can try by the way I vote and the way I talk to friends and family to incorporate that body of Christ thing. That the nations in Africa are not shit holes; they are places that have opportunities that have not yet been explored and I think that I would like to see that change. And I would like to see that everyone, not just in the United States, but that kids had access to excellent education so that we can all move forward together - at least have the opportunity to move forward together. We don't have that.
So, what we mean to each other is I think we are related - whether or not we're willing to acknowledge that. I think it's kind of the opposite of the Ayn Rand thing where we're each in it by ourselves and may the strongest, smartest person rise to the top and who cares about the rest - that's the opposite of what I feel. So what we are to each other - each and every person, you and me and every patient that I had...
I was a big Obama supporter and I had a patient that absolutely - he was about 65ish - hated Obama, just absolutely would get red in the face when he'd talk about Obama. And he and I became friends over time. Neither of us convinced each other to change our political point of view, but we became friends over time. Because he had something to offer me and I to him in terms of looking at the world that we live in and talking about, Well, how can we change things in a way that would be mutually acceptable to each other? I treasure that when people from different points of view acknowledge that what we are to each other is a teaching opportunity - an opportunity to recognize that we really are all in this together.
If you believe in quantum physics, that's literally true. You and I are interacting - our gravity, our electrons are interacting with each other. We're literally linked to each other from a physics point of view. But it would be nice if people also acknowledged that from a point of view of our actions have results on other people. That everything that we do spreads out and comes back. I would like people to recognize that what we are to each other is linked. We cannot separate ourselves from each other, much as we would like to at times.
What does being part of community mean to you?
I think the word community means communion. You know, we are together. Which goes along with what I was just talking about. For me, community is recognition that we're together and then working to make things better, not just for ourselves, but for all of us. My own observation about myself is that as I became more engaged in the lives of people that were very foreign to me - I mentioned my white, middle-class, male background - as I began to listen to other people's stories, my life got better. My life got better. So, community is people working with each other and listening to each other and, in the process, doing well together.
Do you have thoughts on why we can't seem to focus on what is at the core of the many different social injustices and what is your role in this realm - fighting against or standing up for? Why can't we sort this out?
I'm sure people have tried to write books to address that kind of a question. One of the things that I've seen that's gotten in the way of people coming to a more common understanding of this is the fact that people on the left have tended to climb up on a moral high horse. I hear this over and over again, including from the patient that hated Obama. One of things that he hated most about Obama is Obama's presumption that he knew what was best for the world - that Obama knew what was best for us human beings. And so, I feel like often - and no disrespect to you - but often in even using the term social injustice... when you say injustice that means justice isn't being done. So, when you talk to somebody on the Right and say, How can you put up with social injustice?, it's implying that they know what justice is and would prefer to do otherwise. So, right away the conversation begins to tank when that word injustice starts to be used. I feel that I am almost radically evidence-based and then where I can't go any further with the evidence, I can fall back on an appeal. I'll explain that.
If you were able to show me that fewer people were hungry, fewer people lived in absolute need, people were happier by using a social system that was unfair - meaning that women were restricted to particular types of jobs and then men were restricted to particular types of job - if you could show me that that actually resulted in an improvement in the common good, then I would have trouble opposing that system. First of all, I don't believe that's true. I don't believe that you can show that. In fact, I think the evidence is starkly to the contrary. But if you could show that to me, then I would have to back off. And I would have to say - that same curiosity that I was talking about - We need to look at this. We need to find out if the data is right. So, what I prefer is talking about women's rights from the point of view, for example, not of social injustice, but what happens when women are educated and given economic opportunity? Well, what happens is economies thrive, the risk of war goes down, the birthrate goes down on a planet that can't even support its current human population. This is not conjecture; this is just hard economic data. Hard data regarding what happens with birthrates. Educate women, let them get into the workforce - health goes up, the birthrate goes down, the economy picks up. And so, I'm for it. Because I would like to see a world, like you and I have been talking about, in which people had more of an opportunity to live this brief span of life that we have in a way that felt good, felt meaningful, felt fulfilling on some level to the people that are here on planet Earth without doing a whole lot of damage to all the other animals and plants and bacteria (laughs) that live here.
I would like to see us not talk very much about social injustice; I would like to see us talk about what works and what doesn't work. Does it work to put African-Americans into a separate economic class and to give them schools that are shit? No, it doesn't work! Find me even a hardcore right-winger that thinks that that particular approach worked for the African-Americans or for anybody else. For the levels of crime that happen in poverty-stricken - whether it's African-American or not - areas of cities. It means that the rest of us who don't commit crimes end up shelling out a lot of tax dollars, putting people at record numbers - I don't think there's another industrialized nation that has as many people per capita in jail as we do. So, I would like to see us approach things from a point of view of What works to make things better for us humans? Better would mean we'd have to have that conversation that you're talking about. What would be better? Shelter? Medical care? What would you think of as better? If I get to the end of the evidence and I can't carry it any farther because the research hasn't been done, what I would like to see is for people to simply have the opportunity to put themselves in another person's shoes and at least envision what is going on from that person's point of view.
I remember how strange it was for me the first time that I heard the notion of being pulled over because of driving while black. And I thought, Wow, that's not right. That's not good. How would I like it if I got pulled over because I was white? Or how would I like it if I was given a salary offer that was significantly lower because I had two X chromosomes instead of one X chromosome? And so, if I don't have the evidence to prove that this would be a better system, I can at least say to people, Well, what if you were in this situation? What if you cared for your kids as much as you do care for your kids but you lived in a neighborhood where the only school available to you was a school that had an incredibly low graduation rate and almost nobody got to go to college after they went there? And that there were shootings on that campus regularly and lots of drug addiction that wasn't being dealt with? How would you like your kids to go there? So, that's not a social justice thing. That's not saying, Do you feel good about creating conditions like that? That's more like, If we were creating a nation, if we were developing a nation, would you like to set up a nation where regardless of your skin color and regardless of your ethnic background, you didn't have to worry about where your kids were gonna be educated? Would that be appealing to you? And if it is, let's get started!
Have you every heard of the philosophical notion called the veil of ignorance?
Do you have a sense of purpose?
Yes, but not in the sense of eternal purpose. I don't feel like I'm on the planet to accomplish something. You know, when I was a devout Catholic, I believed in the notion of a calling - that God would call me to do a certain thing in life, whatever that might have been. This may not sound very exciting to you, but what I realized over time is I don't need some absolute set of values that I strive for to be my purpose in life. What I've found is - and this sounds completely selfish - I feel better when I get to interact with other human beings and see that my interaction with other human beings makes them feel better. I feel better!
I do have purposes. Cindy was diagnosed with early onset dementia four years ago and one of my purposes in life is to live up to the promise that we made 42 years ago to each other to stay with each other in sickness and in health. So I have a purpose. I purposely avoid some of my riskier activities. I'm a much more cautious mountain biker than I used to be because I don't want to be hurt; I don't want to leave her alone. I want to take care of her. I want to stick with that promise that I made. So, I have that as a purpose. I have four kids. And, to the extent that I can, I'd like to see them do well, which is a tricky business that often doesn't have to do with writing a check; it has to do with waiting 'til the right moment and sometimes not writing checks because you know it would cause a problem. So, I have a purpose. I want my friends and my family to do well. I feel better when I feel like I am helping the people that are close to me and not so close to me, as well as this incredible, beautiful world that we live in. If that world can do better because of my actions, it makes me feel better. And that's enough of a purpose for me. I don't need to know that there's a reward waiting for me someplace.
What do you want more of in your life?
(Laughs) That's a wonderful question. Physically, I don't have anything that I want more of. I mean, everybody has their toy list. I think the Tesla Model S is a marvelous car, but I'm happy without one. If I won the lottery, I'd go buy one. I don't want more money. I wouldn't mind if life was longer 'cause I find the world a really fun place to inhabit. If life were longer and Cindy's cognition wasn't declining, I would think that that would be great.
In terms of things that would really excite me - and I don't know if this fits in your category of what do I want more of - one oddball thing is I would really love it if we could make contact with or discover life off of this planet because it would have tremendous implications in terms of who we are and whether or not we need to get our act together. Especially if we encountered intelligent life on other planets. Because it would put us in the proper perspective. Right now, we human beings, 99.9% of us just can't get it out of our heads that we're the most important thing that ever came along. Whether it's movies or poetry or philosophy, there's a million books about how we're different than the animals and very few written about how we are animals. We're not different from the animals; we're just part of a very broad spectrum of that. And I think that we suddenly snap back or at least be moved towards a much clearer picture of who we are if we could have contact with life off of this planet.
Since I hope that happens while I'm still alive - there's a good chance of it with the number of planets that we're discovering and the technology that's improving by leaps and bounds, really, in terms of being able to look for signs of life on exoplanets. Meanwhile, I would really love to see some sort of healing take place. What I would want more of is mutual understanding between people and a sense of common cause. I know there's an organization called Common Cause and maybe that phrase is hackneyed, but I would want more of living in a place where people felt like we have common cause and let's get down to the business of working on that. Otherwise, I feel like my needs are...
When Cindy was diagnosed, we had a chance to talk; neither of us feel robbed. If that happened to you, you would have the right to feel robbed at your age. But, at 66, having had lots of adventures in life and having had a wonderful relationship with a dream partner for actually 47 years since we were together for five years before we got married. Coming up on a half a century of being with each other, I can't think of anything I want more of. I do not feel robbed. Yeah, it would be nice if this hadn't happened to Cindy. I just came back from the urologist today who said, Your PSA has doubled in the last year and we're gonna need to do another prostrate biopsy. Well, I can deal with that. Because even if I go through all that and find out that something's really wrong, I won't really be able to rage at the world. I've really had a good time being here. I really have.
Do you have anything else you want to put out there?
I would really like to see people on the Left and the Right look really carefully at where they are coming from when they talk to each other. I feel that on the left that people over and over are climbing onto this moral high horse and nobody likes to hear somebody coming at them from the point of view of I have the superior... I am an ethical human being and you are not. We're never gonna get anywhere with that. And on the other side, people who have struggled with the notion that maybe humans are causing climate change, that they say, Maybe I should back up. Maybe I should put a little more evidence-based... maybe I should broaden my sources of information when on four continents, at this moment, there are an extraordinary number of wildfires going on to an extent not yet seen before. It's time for both the Left and the Right to say, Something that we've done isn't working right. Let's sit down and get started on this. It'll be a lot of fun. It'll be really interesting doing this together. And it will be.
So, what I would like is for people - both sides - to get off of their moralistic points of view and just get down to thinking about, Is this the way things to be? No. Then, what can we do about it?
And one more thing that I would like to see, I would like to see people regain some confidence in science. I feel like we're living in an anti-science age. And scientists brought some of that upon themselves. I'm not absolving scientists of all guilt in that matter, especially in my own career of medicine. I feel like doctors are often extraordinarily resistant to good evidence. When people are skeptical of scientists, I get it, and yet, when you want to drive across a bridge... you don't look at your astrological calendar and you don't do aroma therapy, you trust engineers to build the frickin' thing right. That's science. We didn't get to the moon by prayer; we got to the moon by incredibly precise calculations and going through things a thousand times. And when medicine is done well, it's because there are double-blinded controlled studies, not because people are giving expert opinions, which is still way too popular in medicine - doing medicine by expert opinion versus evidence-based medicine. So, I would like to see a comeback of science in a form that people could trust even knowing that sometimes science has done things that have led to people distrusting science as a healthful branch of human knowledge.
Is there anything that you would like to ask me?
Yeah. How has it changed you listening to all these people that you're interviewing? What have you noticed about yourself?
That's an in-progress thing, you know? That will continue. I just had the chance to answer this live the other night. There was an event - The Night Light Show - and the host of the show, Shanan Kelley, asked me. In some ways, these engagements are making me more accountable and, in some ways, making me a little bit harder on myself. Because I have this message that I'm preaching - people getting along and bridging these gaps - and I still have all my own bullshit. And it seems like it's becoming quite a bit more highlighted. The things that I don't do well or the things that I continue to fail at are very present - they'e on the forefront of my mind.
That's pretty amazing. I guess right at the moment, I was thinking about the fact that as a young doctor that encountering people is what made me change. It caused me distress. It showed me my own biases. It showed me my own areas of hardness. I don't know if we're talking about exactly the same thing, but it was being with other humans that really made me need to back up and think about who I was and what I was about.
Yeah. What's happening to me through this project is exactly what I hope happens to everybody who encounters it.