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Nostalgia. Doctor Coplan reflects.

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Portion of the Natick High School Class of 1965 50th Reunion Memorial Quilt, created by Leslie Adams Dowst. The small blue “N’s” between the rows of the deceased are for living class members. All are attached with safety pins, an allegorical reference to impermanence and change. Pebbles have been placed by fellow classmates on photos of the deceased in their memory – a custom borrowed from Jewish tradition.


Doctor Coplan reflects.

I took a brief pause in my discussion of Neurotribes and the epidemiology of ASD this week, to attend my 50th High School reunion. I learned from one of the reunion organizers that “nostalgia” in Greek means “the ache of homecoming,” and it was so. Old hurts were forgiven, old friendships were renewed, and old flames were recalled.

Sadly, a large and ever-increasing proportion of our classmates have passed on. I had the opportunity to offer a prayer at the Memorial Service, and at the last moment I was overcome by the desire to add a few words of my own. Normally I work on presentations for hours or days at a time, but this was from the heart, and unrehearsed, so the best I can do now is paraphrase. If you are visiting this blog because you have a child with ASD, please stick around – I think you will find something here of value. I’ll get back to my discussion of Neurotribes and the nosology of autism next time.

We are here to honor those who have passed away. One of my best friends, Jeff Adams, appears first on our remembrance quilt. He was a kind and gentle person, and I miss him still. He died in 1979, in the crash of American Airlines flight 191, which lost an engine at takeoff from O’Hare, killing all on board. Jeff was flying standby. He had been booked on a later flight, but was eager to get home to his wife and son. The lesson I take from Jeff’s death is that you can plan every jot and tittle of your life, but you can never account for everything. Furthermore, not everything in life is divinely intended. God does not control everything, nor is every terrible event God’s punishment. (For more on this, see Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”.

For most of my life, I lived by the mantra “Have I done enough?” This comes partly from my upbringing: If I got “99” on a test, my father always wanted to know “Where did the other one point go?” It turns out that exams are easy, in a way: at least they are quantifiable. But in real life, this mantra is overwhelming, because there is no way to know how much is “enough.” Over the past few years, however, as a result of much personal work, I have changed my mantra to “Act with Honor.” Knowing what’s the honorable thing to do is not always easy, and sometimes the best I can do is aspire towards that goal. But saying “I acted as honorably as I could,” or “I acted with Honor as I saw it at the time,” is infinitely more comforting than asking myself “Have I done enough?,” because no amount is ever “enough.” (Parents of children with ASD: Are you listening?)

In December of 2014 I retired from clinical practice after 40 years of working as a pediatrician, most of that time dedicated to working with children with neurodevelopmental disabilities: cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, autism, deafness, seizure disorders, traumatic brain injury, and so on. Over the course of those 40 years I saw about 10, 000 children, which translates into giving bad news to around 20,000 parents. If that were all I had done, I wouldn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. But I saw my role not just as someone handing out diagnoses, but as someone to help parents move forward, and grow, to find meaning in their lives, and in the lives of their children with special needs, despite the disability. In this effort, I leaned heavily on the philosophy of Viktor Frankl, and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”. It’s a slim book; you can read it in one day. Prior to World War II, Frankl was a physician in Austria. In the first half of the book, Frankl describes his time as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp (The dedication on the inside front cover states “Those of us who were there know that the best of us did not return”). In the second half of the book, Frankl lays out his philosophy, which emerged from his experience in the camps. According to Frankl, Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept that life is all about power is wrong. Freud’s idea that life is all about sex is equally wrong. Rather, says Frankl, man’s highest aspiration is the search for meaning. We continually strive to find meaning, or make meaning, out of our experiences. One corollary of that philosophy was that no amount of external degradation inflicted by his Nazi captors could rob Frankl of his own value system. He had found a way to find meaning, and to act with honor, regardless of the inhuman conditions to which he and his campmates were exposed.

Where does all of this leave us? First, not all bad things are the work of a harsh (or capricious) God. It’s scary to think that the universe is out of control, but in some ways it is (at least from our vantage point). Second, it is incumbent on each of us to find or make meaning out of our life’s experiences. This is not a task we can delegate to others, or take on faith from others. Finally, no amount of effort is ever “enough.” Don’t ask yourself “Have I done enough?” Rather, ask yourself “Have I acted with honor?” That’s all that anyone can ask of you, or that you can ask of yourself.

Perhaps that’s also the best way we can honor our classmates who have gone on before us.


James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speakerin the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter. Have a question for Dr. Coplan? Ask the doctor.



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