I Can’t Remember and I Don’t Know Where I’m Going

by Bernie Siegel, MD

I would like to reveal to you the advantages of footsteps and amnesia. Let me begin with footsteps. I am sure most of you are aware of the story about the man who walked with God and there were, therefore, always two sets of footprints. At a time of great difficulty the man noticed only one set of footprints and complained to God that He was not there when he needed Him most, God replied, “I was carrying you during the difficult times and that is why there was only one set of footprints.”

On a personal level I have learned much from footprints. One of my stranger habits is to enjoy jogging through cemeteries. I like to read the wisdom of the words on some stones and also notice the egotistical craziness of some people’s last words. What would you share with the world with your last breath and what words do you want on your headstone?

Well to get back to the point. One day after a big snow storm I was jogging through the deep snow and really struggling to make my way. I realized how much of a struggle it was to have to make your own way with no plowed path or footsteps to follow. The next day it was much easier. The snow was still soft and my footprints were easy to follow. Five days later the snow had frozen and the rigid ice made it dangerous for me to try and fit into the old footprints. I had to create a new path or risk breaking my ankles.

What I learned from all this is that at different times in my life I must make different choices. At times it is all right to be carried, at other times following in the footsteps of others is appropriate, at others to make your own way and at times it is proper to leave the old ways and start a fresh path. Your way is found by what feels right for you and not by looking for the easy way.

As the country western songs relate:

there are times in lfe when you gotta crawl,
lose your grip and stumble and fall
when you can’t lean on no one else
that’s when you find yourself

the going’s easy when the road is flat
but them danged hills will get you every time
that’s when you learn how to climb

You must remember that if you constantly follow in the steps of others you will lose your way and life. Remember their way can at times endanger you and be the wrong way. So find your way and let them go theirs. True natives can be your guide when they have shared the same experience but be wise in choosing your guides and do not follow those who are not true guides and teachers but dictate their way to you. Follow their way and you will be lost forever.

Now let me grow less philosophical and more practical as I tell you about my experience with amnesia. Several years ago after doing some work on our roof I stepped onto my ladder and the top rung broke. I fell onto the pavement and struck my head hard enough to give me a concussion. I awakened to a lovely woman bending over me asking, “Honey are you all right?”

“Why are you calling me Honey?”

“I’m your wife.”

Well I felt quite fortunate to have such an attractive wife. She then introduced me to the five children who were standing nearby. It turns out they were ours and all quite nice. I learned I had amnesia and that was why everyone seemed so nice. I couldn’t remember the problems they caused yesterday. My marriage was great. I got along with the kids fabulously and everything was going very well until my memory returned. Then I had to go into psychotherapy and marriage counseling.

Fortunately I had a great therapist who taught me that there was something better than amnesia for relationships. She said it would make me blind to some things as amnesia did but had many other assets. What do you think she taught me about?

If you want a hint try reading I Corinthians 13 or “The practice of Love” by Ashley Montagu. Yes, she taught me that love had all the benefits of amnesia but also offered many more benefits to the giver and receiver of the love.

Please be sure the love you give is unconditional or “kill ‘em with kindness” is not simply a way of overpowering your enemies by loving them but can destroy the lives of others by your forcing your love and will upon them. This conditional love is no different then following the wrong footsteps imposed upon you by others. That is not love. Love clears the way but does not tell you which way to go.

The garden of Eden has no paths because you cannot make a mistake in direction when love is the only way to go. Here in the real world we must make choices so walk in the footsteps of the great lovers. Follow their path and create a path of love and leave some deep and wide footprints for us to follow with ease.

Please do not wait to live a life and path of love. Too often we postpone our lives waiting for the right time and then learn we don’t have all the life time we needed and desired. So live your way now.

The phone just rang as I was typing this article. The man who called asked how I was feeling. I knew this was the beginning of a sales pitch so I said,” My therapist is here. I have just taken an overdose of sleeping pills and I’m headed for the emergency room.”

“Oh, Is this Bernie Siegel? I’ve attended two of your lectures. Can I read you a poem I’ve written?” I laughed and said to him to go ahead. What he read me was a poem about his ten year experience working with children with disabilities. Why do I tell you this? I have learned my definition of retarded from a young man with Down Syndrome. What is your definition of retarded? I’ll share mine with you and Obama here too.

The following quote was shared many years ago by John McGeogh, a young man with Down Syndrome, when he was asked his definition of retarded. It related to how people reacted to him when he was out in public in a new community his family moved to.

“If you cannot get your love flows going, cannot communicate and you are not aware who you are, I call that retarded. Some people are only a little bit retarded. Then I can help them, because they get curious about me. They get into communication with me and their love flows get going. Then it works for them if they like. They get more aware.”

After personally operating on a young man with Down Syndrome I came to visit him the evening following his surgery. He said, “If you want to see my operation you have to pay.” I explained according to hospital rules his surgeon didn’t have to pay and he allowed me a free view of the operative site, However, the nurses and and house staff learned they had to pay or the sheet was held firmly over his abdomen. When he was discharged he had quite a few dollars on his bed side stand. No other patient ever thought that one up. You tell me who is retarded.

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