Look To The Founding Fathers For Inspiration

March 31, 2007 - Dealing with the pain and symptoms of Chiari is a challenge for most patients. Adding to this challenge is the frustration of dealing with friends, relatives, and caretakers who tell Chiari sufferers that they look okay or appear to look fine. Such remarks often come across as dismissing the patient's complaints, or worse, implying that the patient is lying or a hypochondriac. Chiari patients react to this by feeling alone or isolated which increases the energy needed to seek proper medical attention and treatment.

While it may seem like a stretch at first, there is actually a lesson to be learned from the American Revolution and how America's founding fathers reacted to adversity1. Let's examine that period of time more closely. That the Americans were successful in the Revolution is not really a surprise. The British had larger forces but the Americans had many other important factors on their side. First, the Americans believed that they were fighting for a just cause. They were the most literate society in the world at that time and they were very religious and convinced that God was on their side. Second, Americans only needed to survive to win whereas the British needed to have a clear victory, like Iraq today but with the roles reversed. Third, Americans were more prosperous. They had more munitions per man than the British and their hired mercenary German troops. British and German soldiers were amazed at how affluent Americans were. In fact, a quarter of the German troops remained in America after the revolution. Fourth, because Americans were hunters and outdoorsmen, they were superior marksmen. They would concentrate their firepower on smaller portions of the enemy for deadly effect. Fifth, Americans were entrepreneurs who lived under the banner of liberty. They had governed themselves for 6 generations. They realized that they would encounter war from time to time to protect their liberty and families but wanted to get it over with quickly and get back to life. The Europeans under the old feudal system were forced into service for life and saw it as an honor and duty. As a result, the Americans were more motivated. They could march faster than the enemy. They would march through the night or through snow storms as they did when they crossed the Delaware River to fight at Trenton and Princeton in December of 1776. Lastly, Washington's style as a leader rather than a commander had advantages in collecting a wider range of ideas and developing superior strategy.

Indeed, young America was very different from old Europe in its ideas of liberty, freedom and war making. But, the experience of the war itself forced the leaders of our young nation to examine their own behavior in a very profound manner. The British and Germans under the old feudal system believed it was their option to refuse quarters to surrendering opponents. It was their individual decision to let them live or die. If they felt they were more resistant than they should have been they were more likely to murder them while their superiors looked on with approval despite Admiral Howe's orders otherwise. American soldiers who attempted to surrender in the field were rarely allowed to. More often than not, they were murdered brutally in horrific ways. The British also believed that the spoils went to the victors and that rape and plundering was justified, resulting in towns being looted and burned.

The Americans were outraged after the battle of New York at this behavior. It made them more resolved. More importantly, and perhaps the surprise is that they saw the injustice and decided to behave differently. They believed that the lives of all men must be valued and all were entitled to Liberty particularly the Germans who were not there by their choosing. As a result, the Americans decided to offer quarters to British and German prisoners and provide them food, clothing and shelter. Washington was insistent on this and for the most part his order was carried out with some exceptions in the southern campaign.

The Americans behaved differently because unlike their British and German counterparts they were finding their true purpose. Finding our purpose in life is extremely important. Finding purpose results in a totally different outlook on life. Too often, we confuse the quest for pleasure as the path to happiness. We get caught up in desiring more money, possessions, and status. Seeking pleasure does not result in happiness. It does the opposite. It enslaves us. We end up placing ourselves in our own prisons because there is always more to want and possess. Finding our true purpose in life frees us from self imprisonment and allows us to find happiness. Patients who are suffering from clinical depression are often told by their psychiatrists to volunteer their services to a worthy cause. This is often an effective complementary treatment for depression. Through such an effort, the clinically depressed patient finds purpose and, in turn, happiness, which helps lift the depression. By finding purpose, we learn the meaning of happiness and then see the world differently. We begin to see that many of our past goals and behaviors as quite superficial.

I frequently hear from other Chiari patients that their friends and relatives are insensitive. Friends and relatives say, "…but you look just fine." They do not understand this. They find it frustrating. They sometimes let it get to them and retreat from finding help or fight back to sometimes result in divorce and/or shattering their family. Illness, like any adversity, is an opportunity to self-reflect. In doing so, we can emerge with a new sense of purpose and priorities. To Chiari patients, I say as difficult as it may be, use your illness as an opportunity to find your purpose particularly during the months while you are recovering from decompression surgery. By doing so, you will find happiness and free yourself of your frustrations. You will see the world differently and the apparent insensitive comments of others will no longer frustrate you or impede you. You will never change the behavior and comments of others but you can change your outlook and the key to doing this is to find happiness by pursuing purpose not pleasure2. Like the American troops who participated in one of the most adverse events in history at the crossing of the Delaware River and the subsequent battle at Trenton, know your purpose and you will free yourself of the insensitivities of others.

1Washington's Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History) by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press.
2Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, Washington Square Press.

Ed. Note: The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author. They do not represent the opinions of the editor, publisher, or this publication. Mr. D'Alonzo is not a medical doctor and does not give medical advice. Anyone with a medical problem is strongly encouraged to seek professional medical care.