Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflections on altruism

In an earlier post, I wrote of my mother's involvement in human rights issues.  Over the weekend I attended a reception for EMERGENCY, a group of doctors who provide care for civilians in war torn parts of the world.  I have long thought about becoming involved in such work, with this organization as well as others.  I remember trying to volunteer in Bosnia, where I had visited years earlier, as the war heated up.  I said that I was a fully trained, though relatively newly minted neurosurgeon, and that I had studied two Slavic languages, so picking up a third did not seem too daunting.  I also told the organizations that I had no family from any part of the former Yugoslavia, so I "didn't have a dog in the fight" there.  It didn't work out then, but I still find myself drawn to such involvement.  Much of the time since I have worked with underserved populations here in the US.  Many other relatives have also done this, whether in health care or education.

As I was driving back in the rain after the reception, I thought also of the story of one of my mother's cousins who had a pharmacy in the area of Krakow that was to become the ghetto under the Nazis.  He lived above the pharmacy, so both his business and home were there.  As the ghetto was being closed off, Christians were ordered to leave.  He initially boarded a streetcar to leave, then decided to return, because that was where he felt he belonged.  He stayed there and did what he could to help those who were forced to live in the ghetto.  When the ghetto was emptied and the residents were sent to death camps, he fully expected to be killed as well.  After all, he knew that the penalty for a Pole who helped a Jew was death.  But, somehow he survived and later wrote a book, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy.  His name was Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and he was later honored by Yad Vashem for his activities.  I have a vague recollection of him though certainly recall hearing his story from his daughter as my mother and I were leaving Poland.  At the time he was being denied an exit visa to visit Israel.  So, I wanted to go there to take photos to send to him.

I began to wonder why so many people in my family had stories like this.  Then I recalled that I had heard about some reseach a few years back about a so-called altruism gene.  Apparently there are variants of the oxytocin receptor which are more or less associated with altruistic behavior.  This makes some sense in that oxytocin is also involved in maternal bonding.  It is the hormone that allows women to breast feed.  Clearly, the decision to care for a helpless infant is an altruistic act, though there are also elements of selfishness in the desire to pass on one's own genes.  It also makes sense that a gene of this sort would potentially lead to increased survival of infants whose mothers carry it and thus might be carried on in a population.

Other studies suggest that altruism has more to do with how an individual sees the world.  And if the right posterior superior temporal cortex lights up differently during action perception vs. action performance.  Danusha Goska, author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture, even suggests that "Polish Catholic peasants, in accord with Polish, Catholic, peasant values, did good things."  I do think that this last point has some validity, since Catholicism does value caring for others.

My sense is that the truth is closest to the last.  That this is more of an environmentally influenced trait.  I certainly have felt that I have to try to do what I can to help others, since I have been relatively well off.  A sort of noblesse oblige.  I think that knowing about the heroes in my family just makes it seem all the more necessary to give to others since they gave so much with so much less than I have enjoyed.  I hope that I can live up to the expectations.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Child Soldiers


The recent interest in Kony and the conviction of Thomas Lubanga have brought the issue of child soldiers to the public consciousness, where it should have been for a long time.  There was also a recent discussion of the indoctrination in the Hitler Youth on one Holocaust site.  I remember an Iranian friend telling me about children being sent into mine fields during the Iran-Iraq war because they were seen as expendable.  Clearly children are easier to indoctrinate than adults, which is why many groups have chosen to use them.  They don't ask as many questions, but just do what they are told. 

Several years ago, I interviewed a woman who had worked educating former child soldiers, who often had been denied basic education but simply taught to kill before they could distinguish right from wrong.  She commented on how difficult it was to work with them, because they lacked such basic concepts and had essentially no formal education. 

All of these cases show that children were used because of their trust, yet in all cases, the trust was clearly misplaced.  Most regarded even the children fighting on their own side as expendable, showing little regard for their lives or future.

A recent opinion piece in the LATimes comments on this:
Child soldiers: A worldwide scourge

I think about my uncle who lied about his age to join the Polish Army under General Anders and fought at Monte Cassino when he was only 15 or 16.  He was one of many boys who did this.  He knew that his country was being devastated by the Germans, and had himself been imprisoned and deported by the Soviets after they invaded eastern Poland in 1939, shortly after the German invasion from the west.  He felt that it was his duty to help free his country. His father had died during the time in exile, so he was alone with his mother, and she was frail.  All his other family and nearly everyone from their village was to die during the war.  

I think of my mother's cousin who at age 16 helped to steal a V2 rocket and deliver it to the British.  In this way, the British learned how to disarm the V2s that didn't explode on impact.  But this cost the lives of nearly everyone from my grandfather's family, leaving only his niece to tell the story.

I also think about the children who fought with the resistance, even meriting a statue in Warsaw of a child soldier. This is shown the photo above.

My uncle, my mother's cousin and some of the other children who fought in the resistance did so by choice.  At least, that is how they told it years later.  And I view their actions as heroic.  But they were teens who were forced to grow up too soon by the war and occupations that engulfed their country for several years before they became combatants.

Nevertheless, I think that there is far too much violence in the world.  Enlisting children to fight wars is something that needs to stop.  Perhaps if old men were forced to fight wars they would not choose to go to war so easily.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saint Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day.  This morning, my son awakened telling everyone they had to wear green today because it was St. Patrick's Day.  Indeed, all of us did, though none of us have any Irish ancestry. Throughout my childhood, St. Patrick's Day was always celebrated.  Many people wore green, though increasing people don't.

The Irish have had a difficult history.  When many came to the US after the potato famine, they were greeted with discrimination. Yet they have become an accepted ethnic group in this country.  About forty to fifty years later, Poles began to arrive.  My grandparents arrived early in the twentieth century, though maintained connections with Poland.  My grandfather returned for a visit in the mid-1930s.  Some family members even chose to return permanently.

Today, I saw an article about the Polish-Irish connection.  The link is below.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Ides of March


My mother was born on the Ides of March.  She loved to quote from the play Julius Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March."  She was often a firebrand, so the saying applied to her as well.  She fought for justice for all.  She was involved with resettlement of displaced persons, migrant health care and education and non-violence.  As a child, I often went with her to her various activities.  I know that they helped to form my view of the world.  She certainly was a great influence for me in many aspects of my life.

I thought about writing something for International Women's Day, but reviewed the history.  The holiday had started as a holiday in 1909.  It was originally started as a holiday by the Socialist Party of the United States, but later was adopted by the Soviet Union after the October Revolution of 1917.  After that it was mainly celebrated in communist countries.  In the West, it began to be celebrated after the UN proclaimed March 8 as the International Women's Day in 1977.  More recently, it has drawn attention to women and families displaced by conflict, rape as a form of oppression in conflicts around the world and families of those who are missing.  These recent issues were all issues my mother concerned herself with during her life.

The photos above are of my mother with her mother (who died in 1942), at her wedding in 1939 (she is the woman on the right, my father is in the center) and with me as a baby.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book Review of The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

As the adoptive mother of two children who spent their first years a foreign orphanage, I found Deborah Henry’s book The Whipping Club to be very interesting.  Though my children are doing relatively well, I do know of others who have died due to inadequate medical care (by American standards) in such institutions, and many who have behavioral problems stemming from years of institutionalization.

Set in Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, the book begins as Marian learns that she is pregnant.  While very much in love with her boyfriend, Ben, she is pressured by her uncle, a Catholic priest, and the reaction of her boyfriend’s parents on learning that she is not Jewish, into going to a home for unwed mothers.  Since the women there are deemed to be sinners since they became pregnant out of wedlock, they are punished and shamed for this sin.  Marian’s son is then taken from her and placed in an orphanage, rather than being adopted to an American couple as Marian is led to believe.  

She then returns to Dublin and marries Ben.  They have another child but both remain silent about Marian’s time away and their first child, until a woman from the home for unwed mothers seeks out Marian to let her know what has become of her first child.  Marian and Ben try to get their child back, especially as they learn more about the abuse that the children suffer in the orphanages and later in industrial schools for the older children.  After the death of his friend in the school, Marian and Ben become even more intent on removing him from the dangers of the school, even if they are unable to keep him with them, since they are unable to get legal custody despite being his biological parents.  In addition, the boy shows behaviors common in institutionalized children, who often develop oppositional defiant disorder because those in charge of them have not shown them appropriate behaviors for living in a family.  Marian feels tremendous guilt for allowing her firstborn to have been damaged in this way.  

The novel exposes the scandal that Ireland had for many years imprisoned many of its citizens in the Magdalene laundries, industrial schools and psychiatric hospitals, with the complicity of the government and the Catholic Church.  In these institutions, women and children were exposed to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.  Should they try to escape, the police would return them.  The novel helps to understand the experiences of those interred in such institutions.

A second theme is the bias of the time against intermarriage between those of different faiths in the conservative culture of Ireland.  This placed additional stress on the relationship between Marian and Ben, as their families gradually come to accept that their marriage can work out.  This pairing echoes the mixed background of the author.

Though the initial discovery of what has become of their son stresses the marriage, helping him to get out of the industrial school seems to bring Marian and Ben together.  In addition, Marian’s uncle begins to question the system that he had supported, unaware of much of the abuse under the surface.

Fortunately, the Magdalene laundry system has ended in Ireland, but the scars it left on many of its victims linger.  In addition, there are still millions of children worldwide who live in institutions simply because their parents cannot care for them. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Personal essay published

Although I have written scientific medical articles, I have recently been venturing into more creative and personal writing.  My first personal essay, about the death of my mother was recently published.  Here is the link:

It was certainly a difficult and painful experience to live through and even to write about all these years later.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

There but for the grace of God go I...

There is much of life that is random.  I think first that where we are born may give us a good start or not.  I was fortunate to be born in an affluent country.  I didn't experience hardship as a child and had the security of loving parents.  We weren't rich, but we weren't needy.  I also was fortunate to have a mother who helped others, whether helping with resettlement of displaced persons or health and education services for migrant farm workers.  Hearing their stories taught me how fortunate I was indeed.

My children didn't have the luxury of love and security for the first few years of their lives, which were spent in an orphanage.  My older child constantly worries that this period of security with me will come to an end and he will be alone again.  My younger child seems to accept that she has a forever family, and that things will work out well for her.  I wonder how much of the difference between them is due to innate personality differences and how much is due to their early experiences.

Last weekend, I listened to a radio program about happiness.  Happiness, it was said is 50% genetic, 10% environmental, and 40% due to personal choices, especially in relationships, and trying to help others.  Even the environmental seems only to be an issue if there is true hardship and loss, and so is not proportional to income.  This certainly seems to be the case.  I have met very many poor people who seem happy and rich people who don't.  As the saying goes, "Money can't buy happiness."

I do think that a portion is intrinsic, whether genetic or not, I can't say.  Some people certainly seem more able to find happiness than others and even seem to make those around them happy.  I am fortunate there, too, in that my mother was one of those people.  My younger child is as well.  I'm trying to help my older child find that much of happiness is within himself.

The last part is due to personal choices.   I agree that seeking money or prestige doesn't help to achieve happiness.  Happiness has to be in relationship to helping others.  This seems obvious when I see my older child helping the younger to learn a new skill.  He seems happy then.  And he is a good teacher.  I hope that with time he learns to value that more in himself.