These are the most difficult words I have ever written. I have a phobia about the righteousness of my actions. It’s easier for me to feel okay about my plans and dreams before they are realized than it is to commit to actually following through and completing an activity that might be criticized. I know that I should not have contempt for the shortcomings of others. My secret is: I feel the most contempt for my failure to meet my own lofty goals.
In 1968 I left law school (and perhaps a promising career in law) to protest the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be right more than anything. I thought opposition to the Vietnam War was the best thing that I could do for my country. I imagined that future generations of Americans and Vietnamese would admire me for taking a stand against the war when it was unpopular to do so. I chose saving the lives of my contemporaries over my own career. I thought I would be admired because I asked my draft board to order me to do two years of service as a conscientious objector while my student deferment was still active. I was puffed up with self-rectitude when my draft board reclassified me as a conscientious objector. I knew that I was right to be against the Vietnam War. My draft board ordered me to find an acceptable job that was in the “national health safety or interest” and perform it successfully for two years. I turned down a job doing public relations for Boston Children’s Hospital because I was afraid that it would tarnish my sterling image. The job seemed too much in my career path at a time when so many members of my generation were dying in Vietnam. I thought it wouldn’t look “good” if I had a “good” job while men my age were dying in Vietnam.
I accepted a job at the Walter Fernald School. The children at the school had Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities but they were called retarded. At the time it was easier for people to blame the children for their disability than it was to do anything to ameliorate it. I was appalled that the majority of the parents of these children never visited them. I felt morally superior to the parents because I spent eight hours a day at the school with the children they never visited.
While at Fernald I counseled young men who were about to be drafted to file as conscientious objectors with their draft board just as I did, in order to make a statement against the war and perhaps end it. When these young men refused to file as conscientious objectors, I felt superior to them too.
After my two years as a conscientious objector ended, I was offered a job as Press Secretary to Westchester Republican Congressman Peter A. Peyser, but turned it down because Peyser backed Nixon. I accepted a job writing, editing, and broadcasting local news in Roanoke Virginia with a CBS radio affiliate that was owned by a newspaper. I loved broadcasting the news, but I felt that doing commercials somehow tainted my reputation even though the station was not very profitable. The station was sold to someone who made it more profitable by cutting the news budget and replacing the disc jockeys with automated systems that generated both music and commercials.
In the presidential election 1972, I again showed that I would rather be right than be happy when I worked very hard to unsuccessfully persuade people in Roanoke to vote for McGovern in order to end the war in Vietnam. I became blind to political realities. I knew there was almost no chance that a single controversial issue, would be enough to get McGovern elected. Six years earlier, when I participated in the Washington Semester Program, I sat at a staff desk in the office of Sen. Ed Muskie’s Senate Public Works Committee where I saw Sen. Muskie at work. I admired Muskie much more than I did McGovern. I allowed the importance of being absolutely right to override the nuanced shades of democracy. My father and my political science professors taught me the importance of compromise which I refused to do.
Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918 with a slight intellectual disability to Joseph and Rose Kennedy. She was their third child. Her older brothers were Joseph Junior and future president Jack Kennedy. Her parents kept her mental disabilities hidden outside the family. As she entered her early 20s, it became more and more difficult to hide her disabilities from the public. In 1940 her parents ordered that she have a lobotomy and sent her away without telling her brothers and sisters. I mention this to show how even the best families did not know how to help their children with disabilities and regarded disabilities as a mark of shame. It is because of Rosemary that the Kennedy family after 1960 championed the rights of people with disabilities. However, I grew up in the 1950s and regarded a disability is a mark of shame.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in Peterborough, NH in 1996. I reacted by denying that I was any less a gift to clients for systems analysis than I was before my diagnosis. I could not deny the results of cognitive tests that showed I had neural damage in my pre-frontal lobe as a result of plaque caused by MS. I looked in the mirror and I saw the same person that I had always seen. I didn’t see a person who could no longer do the one thing that I had learned to do well: understand and accurately document the information flow in a large organization.
I denied that I was worth less in the employment marketplace. I persuaded the people around me, my wife of 25 years and my two wonderful daughters, that I could be as productive as ever. I convinced them because I made the two best real estate transactions of my life followed by the two worst real estate transactions of my life immediately before being diagnosed with MS. I was lying to both my family and myself.
I self-righteously felt I didn’t deserve the MS disability because I had never done anything unethical for my own gain. My grievous error was to think that people with disabilities deserve them.