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On Being American

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 06, 2015

Volume V, No.14/222


Love Affair with the English Language:

The Catechism of Being an American

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Today’s Musings are imbued with personal memories. They have to do with my choosing to come to America to study medicine, among other things. You see, I was not born an American. I chose to be an American. I entered the US on April 7, 1955, exactly 60 years ago this coming Thursday. In order to go to college and prepare for my medical education, I knew that I had to learn English rather quickly. In months between April and September when college opened, I memorized the 285,000 words of the 1955 edition of the Oxford Dictionary. Later, I expanded this knowledge and learned the etymology of practically every one of those words. Soon, I learned that Dr. Samuel Johnson exactly 200 years before my date of entry, namely April 7, 1755 had compiled the first English Dictionary. The very first edition of the Oxford Dictionary was compiled in 1857a la Dr. Johnson’s original compendium. I found a copy of that precious book through the Library of Congress. The edition contains 50,000 words. I enjoyed memorizing it, also, and forming an adoring relationship with the work of the late Dr. Johnson and through him with the English language. As an aside, the original Dr. Johnson’s 50,000 word dictionary was a part of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, sold to US Government which became the germinating seed of our beloved US Library of Congress.

Three years were spent in college pre-medical education with majors in English and Chemistry. I entered medical school in 1958. In 1962, exactly seven years after coming to the US, I had earned Doctor of Medicine (MD).

My intense experience with the English language, which continues to this day, brought me close to much older and wiser linguists and University Professors. Among them was the late Samuel Hayakawa, the then Chancellor of San Francisco State University, who in 1977 became a US Senator from California. He used to get a kick out of my referring to him as the semi-somnolent septuagenarian, Senator Samuel Hayakawa. I wrote a letter to Hayakawa and to our own then Senator Jesse Helms who also knew something about my love for the English language, suggesting that they sponsor a bill to make English the official language of America. I even sent some money to defray expenses associated with the authorship of the bill, etc…I believe a bill was introduced but never passed.

In my communications with the mighty solons, instead of concentrating on the importance of the subject matter, Senator Helms enjoyed my ability to close my eyes and recite page after page of the Oxford Dictionary, “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, etc…I continue to believe that we need a law that makes English the official language of this nation. Enough of wasting money to print ballots in 56 languages–that is profligacy not progress…

With all my emotional and intellectual resources, I believe making English the official language of America is the most important issue in today’s political discourse.  It is an abomination and travesty that folks can come to America, live for as many as 30 years, and know not who Abraham Lincoln is, or the first thing about our flag, or the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution. I believe that to be an American, one must know the English language, know the bare essentials of our Constitution, our Republic, our Bill of Rights and the story of the birth of this nation and our Founding Fathers. What are the requirements to be an American? In my view, the catechism of being an American should consist of a good knowledge, if not verbatim memorization, of four documents. They are the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address.

Please feel free to call on me and use me as a reference to further this, what I consider to be a holy cause.

God Bless America!


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On Remaining True in the Face of Chronic Condition

Monday Musings” for Monday March 2, 2015

Volume V.  No. 9/217

Images from the November 2008 ASC Conference at the National Humanities Center

L-R Drs. Sacks, Meymandi, Harpham at NHC

When death comes calling, gratitude answers


New York Times News Service February 21, 2015

(Editor’s Note: We are devoting today’s ‘MM’ to the celebrated life of prominent colleague, neurologist Olives Sacks, author of many NYT best seller books. Dr. Sacks was a Meymandi Fellow, National Humanities Center, RTP in 2008).   

A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out – a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am … a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume. While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment – I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people – even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

 The New York Times

Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, is the author of many books, including “Awakenings.”


*MM” is a weekly feature written by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Importance of Social Science and Humanities on Education

“Monday Musings” for Monday February 17, 2014

Volume IV, No. 7/163


Thinking Things Through

Dearth/Death of Humanities

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD DLFAPA*

Each year there are gazillions of meetings, assemblies, conventions, congresses and seminars held across the globe. Some of these meetings are celebratory in nature, some are to advance science, some are to anoint politicians and some are to promote a common cause.  In the past few years, we have had our own share. We have been able to welcome and celebrate the arrival of a prominent scientist, the first “Meymandi Fellow” at the National Humanities Center, and to learn from his scientific knowledge and benefit from his vast reservoir of wisdom. Dr. Edward O. Wilson is a Harvard Professor of entomology, father of sociobiology and twice Pulitzer Prize winner for his many books, among them, the famed volume, Consilience.

The National Humanities Center continues to enrich our society with predictable excellence and resourcefulness. Among other NHC Meymandi Fellows have been luminaries such as Dr. Helen Vendler, Harvard Professor of English and Poetry, and Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, President of Rockefeller University, Sir Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology at Cambridge University and President of the Zoological Society of London.

But as a good editor/writer should, I have sifted through the proceedings of hundreds of conferences held in the last couple of years, and here is a summary of the most consequential and impressive ones.The first meeting of stellar proportion was the Golden Anniversary of the day James Watson and Francis Crick walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, and announced that they had discovered “the secret of life”. The discovery has been dubbed “the most important scientific breakthrough in the annals of Neolithic man.” This meeting was held in Berkeley, California. Among the participants was, of course, Nobel Laureate James Watson. Other luminaries were from the world of biochemistry, physiology, and biology. For three days they talked, they bantered, they gave brilliant papers on what the marriage of genomics, proteomics and textonics will bring to the 21st century and how knowledge will be democratized through textonics. Children of backwoods nations as far away as Timbuktu will have access to information stored in the Library of Congress, the Louvre, the Met, and libraries of the pre-eminent universities of the world. 

Other papers examined the marvelous achievements of advanced technology and science triggered by the Russian satellite Sputnik. The late ‘50s, all of the 60’s and 70’s accelerated studies of mathematics, science and physics, paving the way to the July 20, 1969 US landing on the moon.

All the while the humanities were placed on the backburner. Many thoughtful analysts believe the cause of widespread terrorism and horrendous losses such as 9/11 are the direct cause of that neglect. However, in the course of those three days, what was lacking, sadly, and to the chagrin of many, was an almost total absence of a discourse or discussion on how to transform the enormous amount of available information and technology into wisdom. If we ever catch up with this part of the missing link, perhaps we will have fewer 9/11 phenomena and threats of global terrorism.

At the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed that input from humanities, such as philosophy, history, psychology, epistemology and linguistics, dance and poetry is needed to achieve the elevated goal of nirvana of wisdom, peace and love. The recent report on the humanities and social sciences, “The Heart of the Matter” commissioned by Congress and produced by a committee formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-chaired by our own Duke President Richard Brodhead, witnesses the conspicuous decline, if not absence, of the humanities in our academic lives. The Commission report has attracted a good deal of attention.

Another remarkable meeting in the past two years was a “Meeting of the Minds.” It was indeed a gathering of some of the world’s best thinkers. It was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss how scientists, people of religion, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, Sufis and transcendentalists, can collaborate to understand the nature of reality. The meeting focused on neuroscience and psychology. The participants were The Dalai Lama, Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst, Georges Dreyfus, Chair, Department of religion at Williams College; Ajahn Amaro, co-abbot, Abjayagiri Monastery, Ca.; Ann Harrington, Professor, history of Science, Harvard University; Stephen Kosslynn, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Eric Lander, Director, Whitehead Institute, Center for Genome Research, MIT; Jonathan Cohen, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University and Jerome Kagon, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University,  just to name a few.

The meetings were most stimulating and informative. The participants were indeed thinking through how to transform knowledge and information into wisdom leading humankind to peace. I was impressed by all the presenters. The common pathway to reaching peace, happiness and the ultimate form of unconditional acceptance, labeled by the Sufi as “love”, may be achieved through introspection, self-analysis and altruism. The Dalai Lama said, “Buddhism is a 2500-year-old tradition of analyzing and investigating the inner-world, the reality of the mind, in order to transform one’s emotions and reach happiness. It seeks to understand the causal dynamics of emotions. It uses intelligence to the maximum for the purpose of developing compassion.”

Looking back at the history of human conflicts as seen in ancient Punic, Peloponnesian, Thermopile and Trojan wars, the crusades, and the more recent wars, including the conflict in Iraq, we should learn that victory does not come with guns and swords but with understanding, compassion, self-denial and love. For example, it would be helpful to send ambassadors and representatives who know the language and the culture of their host countries. This would be a good start on the glorious highway of humility, love and respect for others. 


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On a Contemporary Martin Luther

Monday Musings” for Monday November 18, 2013

Volume III, No. 45/139


Paul Tillich, A Contemporary Martin Luther

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Our inbox runeth over. Incoming mail about Martin Luther’s birthday brought us unprecedented response requesting more on Luther. In compliance, we will schedule another “MM” on the occasion of Luther’s mortal anniversary, the week of February 18. Today I thought we ought to recognize some contemporary “Martin Luthers,” my favorite among them is Paul Tillich. But let me share a sample of the incoming mail:  A distinguished colleague and faithful reader of this space writes:  “Concerning grace–suspicious New Yorker, at breakfast in Southern Pines, pointing to white stuff on plate: what’s that! I didn’t order it & I won’t pay for it!Waitress: them’s grits–you don’t order ’em, you don’t pay for them. They’s like grace: they just comes.” I don’t believe Saint Paul or the formidable scholar of grace, Saint Augustine of Hippo, can parallel this…. Now to Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was Harvard Professor of Systematic Theology. It must be noted that there are hundreds of professors at Harvard, but only five Harvard Professors. These coveted positions have been maintained throughout Harvard’s nearly 400 years of existence. Paul Tillich had the rank of Harvard Professor of Systematic Theology in Harvard Divinity School. His tenure as one of the five began in 1955. Tillich came to US at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr in 1947.  He had to learn English. Not only did he learn the language–he wrote nearly a million words in English. His many highly acclaimed books, many of them bestsellers in the world of academia, are published in English. He taught in New York Theological Seminary and Columbia University before joining Harvard.

A personal note:  I came to US as a student in 1955.  In my early days of college pre-med, while learning English, I was exposed to some of the Tillich’s writings. I especially enjoyed reading his book, History of Culture and Religion. It was an intoxicating work, emphasizing the universality of “personhood.” Three years later, after entering the George Washington University School of Medicine, I learned that Prof Tillich was to conduct a Saturday seminar on Systematic Theology. I wrote to him and to the Harvard University administration to get permission to audit the course. The privilege was granted. I further obtained permission to tape the lectures. The tape recorder in those days was the size of a suitcase. Bulky and unyielding, I lugged it to the Logan Airport in Boston every Saturday for 19 weeks. I attentively listened and taped the lectures. The Professor had a thick German accent, often unintelligible. But his thinking was clear and unencumbered.  Even though he wrote many books including his three volume Systematic Theology in English, I still believe he really never learned to think, speak and/or dream in English. I believe his English writings were translated German which attest to a brilliance and disciplined mind.

Paul’s career at Harvard ended in 1962 when he moved to the University of Chicago. His last volumes were written in Chicago. He died in 1965. The outstanding feature of his teachings and writings may be summarized as his attempt to correlate/connect and integrate. He called his theology “Method of Correlation”, espousing theology with existentialism, psychology psychological analysis sand biology. Tillich was a huge advocate of ontology and the state of being. He “connected” and “correlated” the philosophical positions of the four work horses of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), John Paul Sarte (1889-1976) , and Albert Camu (1913-1960); the art of the impressionist painters such as Monet, Manet and Pissarro; theologians of the Reformation era, such as Martin Luther (1483-1550) and his contemporary Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) known as the father of Christian Humanism (not to be mistaken with secular humanism); as well as pre-Christian philosophers and lovers of wisdom such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He correlated and connected all these exciting elements to achieve his ultimate goal of illuminating the landscape of theology. Paul Tillich was a great observer, connector and co-relater of human and Godly phenomena.

Finally, Tillich’s lifelong pursuit of philosophy and theology reveals that the central question of every philosophical inquiry always comes back to the question of being, ontology, or what it means to be, to exist, and to be a finite human. Here is a statement in his introduction to systematic theology:

“Theology formulated the questions and implied in human existence and formulate the answers implied in divine self manifesting ideas with the guidance in human existence. This is the circle which drives man to a point where questions and answers are not separated. The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based and are taken by systematic theology from the sources, through the medium, under the norm. Their content cannot be derived from questions that would come from an analysis of human existence. They are ‘spoken’ to human existence from beyond it, in a sense. Otherwise, they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself.”

Studying Paul Tillich leaves us with more questions than answers, a state that sharpens curiosity and encourages one to be a more eager seeker. I believe Paul Tillich would have made a superb candidate for Meymandi Fellowship at the National Humanities Center.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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Remembering Mrs. Thatcher

Monday Musings for April 15, 2013

Volume III 14/117

Mourning Maggie

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

 (Editor’s Note: The passing of Lady Thatcher was a blow.  Condolences to all. In observance of the occasion, we are re-running “Monday Musings” below for your reading enjoyment, and the link for your viewing pleasure. 

 Link on WRAL:


Vol. 2 / No.20


From left to right, Dr. P. Geoffrey Feiss, Lady Margaret Thatcher, Dr. Assad Meymandi.

Lunch with Maggie

I recently saw the movie Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. We are not big movie fans, may be go to one or two a year, and often if the subject is disappointing, I leave after the 10-15 minutes but not this movie. Iron Lady is a movie depicting the biography of Lady Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of England (1979-1990). It was on her watch, and that of the late President Ronald Reagan, that the Soviet Union crumbled. Throughout the movie, I had a hard time keeping my composure.  It was hard not to cry.  I was weeping for Lady Thatcher, I was weeping for losing her warm, but elegant friendship, I was weeping for losing the promise and possibility of her accepting the invitation of the National Humanities Center to become a Distinguished Meymandi Fellow and give lectures to the RTP audiences. But above all I was weeping for the world losing a remarkable woman, another Lady/Empress Matilda Maude (1102-1167) who pre-wrote Magna Carta (King John, 1215).  The history of our relationship goes back to many years ago.  Below is a reprinted account of our initial luncheon meeting, first published in Wake County Physician magazine.

Seven other people, my wife and I were privileged to lunch with Lady Margaret Thatcher in the Plumeri House of William and Mary College. Our host, P. Geoffery Feiss, Provost of the College, seated me at the left side of the Iron Lady, because that is her “good ear”. The lunch and conversation went on at a leisurely pace. With the after-lunch-picture-taking-and book-signing ceremonies, the Lady stayed around for a good two and a half hours. Nonetheless the entire experience was an extravagant moment, but too short and too fleeting…Her trip was a hush-hush affair.  She was the mystery guest at the commencement ceremonies of the previous evening. The principle speaker was Ms. Halaby (Queen Noor of Jordan).But with the Lady Thatcher’s sudden appearance in the academic procession; the crowd erupted into a spontaneous ovation.  The Lady gave a fifteen minute unrehearsed speech.

Conversation around the round dining room table started with prosaic platitudes, and gradually escalated into an intense exchange of ideas. Of course, most of us listened while the Iron Lady spoke of the Falkland War, her friendship with Ronnie (President Reagan) and Nancy. We also spoke of the former (now the late) NC Senator Jesse Helms and Gorbachev.”The gentleman was devastated when his wife Raisa died”, the former Prime Minister of England informed us.

Thatcher sees no use for the United Nations. She abhors indecisiveness, appeasement and unprincipled diplomacy. She insisted that in our global collective and diffuse culture, individuals do make a difference. Our host invited me to tell the Lady my opinion on this thesis. I politely and dutifully suggested that the Lord, in order to provide Neolithic man with role models, sent Zarathustra to bring us enlightenment; Abraham to give us faith; Moses to demonstrate the possibilities of discipline; Christ to teach us love; Prophet Mohammad, peace be with him, to show us structure and system approach to problem solving; Mozart, to give us the gift of music; Thomas Jefferson and the framers of the US Constitution, the fresh concept of a working, living, breathing Republic where the rule of law is supreme. And then I added the name of Margaret Thatcher to this pantheon of deities who showed us how conservatism, private enterprise, and individual initiative elevate the majesty of human achievement. The lady seemed to enjoy the discourse. She indicated that she is willing to come to NC at a future date, perhaps as a Meymandi Distinguished Fellow at the National Humanities Center.

On a personal note, Lady Thatcher showed a bit of disdain for sensation seeking journalists who emphasize her “grocer” father, but neglect to say that the gentleman was a civic leader, chairman of the town library board, a civic leader and prominent in the cultural life of his hometown. It was her father who inculcated the love of books and reading in the future Prime Minister of England. Thatcher went on to study Chemistry at Oxford, because of the possibility of a better job. For a while a student she actually made and sold ice cream… I asked the Lady what force has been most influential in her rise to prominence. Without hesitation, she named Winston Churchill, and went on to extol the Gentleman’s virtues including his military career and becoming Prime Minister when he was well into his sixties.

The Lady gave me two autographed books which occupy a prominent place in my private library. And in my heart.

State Anniversaries for the month of May:  Wisconsin, State number 30, joined the Union on May 11, 1848.  Motto: “Forward“.  South Carolina, original colony number 8, May 23, 1788.  Motto: “While I breathe, I hope.”  Rhode Island, original colony number 13 (the last one), May 29, 1790, Motto: “Hope“.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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