Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Moral Heroism in Little Rock, Arkansas

I was in my second year of college when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to protect the nine black students who integrated the high school. I have a vivid memory of their bravery. So when I saw in the New York Times today that Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine, had died, I read the obituary.

I was especially moved by the final two paragraphs of the account of Mr. Thomas's life:
In 2007, Mr. Thomas told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that prayer had helped him through the integration struggle. He said that one Sunday at church he heard the hymn “Lord, Don’t Move My Mountain, Just Give Me the Strength to Climb,” inspiring him to pray for strength, rather than for the acceptance of his classmates.

“It seemed that overnight, things stopped being so bad,” he said. “The same things were happening, but they didn’t hurt me as much. I didn’t feel like I was a failure. I felt victorious because I made it through the day.”
His report validated an experience I often had in clinical practice. I saw many patients with chronic conditions that could not simply be "cured." I interpreted resilience and the capacity to find joy in life despite persistent symptoms or unavoidable medication side effects in terms of "courage." That led me to think a lot about where courage came from.

With patients who had strong religious traditions, I inquired as to whether prayer was meaningful for them. If it was, I encouraged them to pray. That's what Jefferson Thomas did in high school, with extraordinary results. Apparently the line from the hymn created an "aha" moment for him.

For a number of years I had the privilige of leading a wellness class in my group practice. At the end of the six class sequence a man with chronic back pain reported that on a 1 - 10 scale the pain had not changed, but his suffering had diminished markedly. He taught me that "symptoms" and "suffering" aren't the same thing. His comment stuck with me over the years.

If listening to a hymn was enough to create courage and resilience, life would be a lot easier, and self-help gurus would have less of a market for their services. Jefferson Thomas volunteered to be among the group to integrate the high school. My guess is that he had an innate temperament (I often used the word "wiring") conducive to courage and receptive to the message in the hymn. And he was part of a group that knew it was making a historical step.

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