“Don’t Be Realistic. Be Outrageous!”

An Interview with Patch Adams and Susan Parenti

Susan Parenti and Patch Adams, July 15, 2011. PerennialsPhotos copyright Michelle Mockbee (flickr.com)
Rowe Center: You have both spent a good part of your lives working to make the world a better place. Will the world be a better place in 40 years?

Susan Parenti: I believe we can create a better world if people would ask themselves what it is they really desire. What do they really long for in life? Don’t ask what is realistic. Be outrageous. If people were to stop this constant admiration of force, this adoration of those who have more, the world would be a better place. If they could give this up, and think instead of cooperation and interdependence, the world would be a better place.

Patch Adams: I consider myself an activist in the present tense. My focus is making the world a better place now, not in the future. I want to make the present tense. I tell medical students that they will doctor us into extinction. Market capitalism will destroy us because the Earth cannot bear our raping it forever. I do not think it is too late. I am a raging activist, neither pessimistic or optimistic. If you pushed me to say will we save the planet, I believe we are saveable. That is not to say that I think it will be easy. We could have a wonderful future. I do not see today how that will come to pass, but I do know from our travel around the world that there are millions of projects representing many more millions of people who are busting their butts to create a future I would like. A future where no one alive will remember what the word “war” means.

Patch Adams gives a speech at Freedom Plaza, Washington, DC, 10/13/11. Photo: Jesse Calkin, flickr.com
R.C.: What galvanizes people to action? Optimism or pessimism?

S.P.: A lot of people sticking their necks out creates a climate where change is possible.

I don’t find asking people whether they are optimistic or pessimistic is very helpful. If you give people an optimistic answer, they don’t feel it’s necessary for them to change things, as things are going well, according to you; if you give people a pessimistic answer, then people feel it’s hopeless to change anything, so they don’t change anything. Maybe there are other terms besides ‘pessimistic/optimistic’ to speak about people feelings towards the future?

“Right now, healthcare is the most expensive thing in our society.”

P.A. : The win is now. How can we influence a non-activist to become an activist for peace and justice? By inspiring them to realize that huge things can happen that they never imagined possible before. Take healthcare for instance. Right now, healthcare is the most expensive thing in our society. We created a hospital that eliminates 90% of the cost that everyone else tells you is necessary. I always ask people, what is your desire? What is the design for your desire? If you take 10,000 families paying $14,000 a year for health insurance, you will have enough in a year to build and endow a good community hospital. If those same people enjoy working together, they could tear up roads and create community gardens. Wealthy people, who also face extinction, might fund the transition,.

R.C.: How do we get to a more compassionate society?

S.P.: We need to downplay “knowing” and up-play “caring”. Knowledge does not necessarily lead to caring. Knowledge used to be power, but not anymore. I see this with young people, who have more access to knowledge than we ever did, but do not necessarily care more. I am interested in a world that puts a premium not on knowledge, or even freedom, but on caring. When you care for someone, you are not actually free. Care is not an emotion, it is an action. And when you care, you can also suffer. And when you want to avoid suffering, you care less. So the challenge is how to amplify caring without amplifying suffering. If we get hurt caring about the world, that hurt actually makes us more human, and so is not to be avoided. There should be rituals for people who go through suffering that comes from really caring about something that matters.

P.A.: The government does not care about people. It pretends to, but it is a puppet of market capitalism. It says it cares, but it is also the number one arms dealer. Where was the protest to the Iraq war, our longest running war? The powers that be, abetted by the media, have done a great job in getting people not to think. Or at least, what I think is thinking. I have stayed in a project to make better healthcare for 44 years that is not yet completed, because I see that it inspires people.

“If we all wake up and move towards a care model of life, then life will be beautiful.”

R.C.: Does it inspire them to action?

S.P: I think that the recession has changed people’s attitudes a lot about what is going on. People are now worried about the economy, their future, and the safety of their children. How do we turn this pessimism into activism? We need new kinds of protest. It bothers me that our students do not go to rallies or marches with me. They see them as relics from the sixties, their grandparent’s activism. I think a lot about how to get young people to see activism as being relevant. But then again, the People’s Climate March in New York City had lots of young people, so maybe things are changing for them too.

P.A.: We have both lived a lifetime of raging activism that came from both of us being sick because of the way things are, and being turned on by the way things could be. We are part of the world of global activists who are showing that change is possible. It takes hard-working people, not people who are special. If we all wake up and move towards a care model of life, then life will be beautiful.

Patch Adams and Susan Parenti will offer their workshop “What’s Love Got to Do With It? Putting Care Back into Health — and Life!” at Rowe on January 23–25.

PATCH ADAMS, M.D., is the founder of the Gesundheit Institute, which has offered free care to tens of thousands of people over its 40-year history, in the belief that the health of the individual cannot be separate from the health of the family, the community, the world, and the health-care system itself. The Institute has built orphanages, schools, community centers, and medical clinics in 24 countries.

SUSAN PARENTI, DMA (doctor of musical arts), is a composer, playwright, and poet who is a founding member of the School for Designing a Society (SDaS), in which people of all ages learn how to “compose” their daily lives and design compositions that perturb society enough to inspire positive change in others.

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