Our culture sells concepts. If we make lots of money, have a beautiful house, send kids to good schools, and travel we’ll be successful. This will make us happy. But does it?
In tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom, a sportswriter on life’s fast track, slows down to visit his dying college professor.
Morrie Swartz has ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. He’s spending his last moments sharing lessons for a meaningful life.
Keeping a supply of tissues at hand, I read this book in two sittings. It touched tender spots; missing loved ones after relationship breaks, forgiveness, the meaning of family, grief and loss, the decision to have children, and saying good-bye.
[Scroll to the end for still images with quotes for social media sharing.]
“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” ~ Morrie Schwartz.
In a series of interviews with Ted Koppel and audio recordings taken by Mitch, Morrie gifted his wisdom to people who never knew him. He wanted to bring dignity to death.
Morrie accomplished what he set out to do. Wherever he is now, I thank him for it.
Note: I remember where I was and what I was doing during the O.J. trial, the time when tuesdays with Morrie first came out. It wasn’t until after the book celebrated its 20th anniversary, and I’d run Phases of Gage (historical fiction novella) through the ScoreIt! linguistic analysis program that I finally read Albom’s book. Gage and Morrie are a match.
Perhaps I’m too close to my work to see similarities beyond neurological challenges and giving death dignity, but I’m glad to have read Morrie’s story no matter how it happened.
Surviving a freak accident— that was how Phineas Gage became famous. If given a choice, he’d probably prefer to be remembered as someone who rose above challenges, lived in a foreign country, and was considered the ‘fun uncle’ by his nieces and nephews.
Regardless of its moral value, Gage’s traumatic brain injury, recorded and publicized by his treating physician (Dr. Harlow), made Phineas a touchstone for the fields of brain science, neurology, and psychology.
“In the 19th century, Gage’s survival seemed miraculous. Fascination with his plight encouraged scientific research into the brain, and the continuing research into Gage’s condition is proof that this same curiosity is still alive today.” — case study, BigPictureEducation.com
Gage frequently appears in contemporary media.
Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2014)producers tipped a hat to Phineas when Doctor Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud), mentions him while reading a phrenology book (skull bumps relating to character traits).
Setting the tone for Elam’s (Common) backstory (Bear Man episode). The railroad worker is ‘not himself’ after a bear attack that punctures his skull.
In the Pollywog episode of Stranger Things2 (Netflix, 2016), science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) lectures his middle school class about the American crowbar case. “Phineas, miraculously, survived….but his injury resulted in a complete change to his personality.”
Later, the audience learns that Will Byers, (Noah Schnapp) returned from the Upside Down, is no longer the sweet boy he was before his mysterious mishap.
In the January 2018 issue of National Geographic,The Science of Good and Evil analyzes a connection between violence and empathy. In the article, a full page photo of Phineas, holding his tamping iron, is captioned with, “When he recovered, he was no longer friendly and respectful; he was uncaring and indifferent.”
In pop culture, Phineas Gage symbolizes traumatic brain injury, emotional disturbance, and personality disorders.
Although Dr. Harlow included personality changes in his notes immediately following the accident, he lost contact with Gage, never performing follow-up examinations.
While it is probably true that Phineas was altered after his accident, the traits with which he is associated may not be accurate.
In his award-winning book, An Odd Kind of Fame, author Malcolm Macmillian, the world’s Gage authority, subscribes to a social recovery hypothesis. He believes that Phineas’s work as a Concord coach driver demonstrates adaptations and coping skills that he developed.
For almost twelve years after the accident, Phineas managed to make his way in the word. We may never have a clear picture of how he lived his life during that time.
What we do know is that Phineas’s place in history, as an icon for brain injury and behavior change, is fixed.
For more interesting brain/behavior stories, check out NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast with Shankar Vedantam.
Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.
The Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture (SSPC) is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary organization devoted to furthering research, clinical care and education in cultural aspects of mental health and illness.