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For the week of Oct. 27, 1999 through Nov. 2, 1999

William O. Douglas’ trek through the hills

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

"I learned early that the richness of life is found in adventure. Adventure calls on all the faculties of mind and spirit. It develops self-reliance and independence. Life then teems with excitement. But man is not ready for adventure unless he is rid of fear. For fear confines him and limits his scope. He stays tethered by strings of doubt and indecision and has only a small and narrow world to explore." WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS (1898-1980)


When he was a small child, William O. Douglas was stricken with infantile paralysis, better known as poliomyelitis or polio. It was not clear at first that he would live, and after he survived his doctor offered to his family the conventional medical wisdom of the time: he would live a shortened life of less than 40 years on polio crippled legs.

When he recovered enough to resume his school work, Douglas immersed himself into his studies and the adventures of the mind, all that appeared to remain to him. There he encountered the Spartans of ancient Greece, physically rugged and hardy people whose habits and capacities understandably inspired a sickly young boy. His research into the lives of the Spartans brought him to Plato’s "Republic" and, to his dismay, some of Plato’s fascist, non-compassionate ideas.

Plato warned of the dangers inherent in propagation of the "inferior’ type of person, by which he meant the physically weak. Plato’s version of the final solution for the weak and "inferior" reads: "The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter, but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be."

It is neither mysterious nor surprising that these ideas of Plato’s were disturbing to a boy who described himself as "spindly." Such ideas are, or should be, disturbing to more than just spindly boys. Douglas later wrote: "Concentrated exercise, like sprinting or wrestling, made me feel faint; and sometimes I’d be sick at my stomach or get a severe headache. I was deeply sensitive about my condition and used many a stratagem to conceal my physical weakness." Though Douglas did not explicitly say so, it is reasonable to presume that such ideas frightened him to the core. However, he did not give in to his fear, and that made all the difference. Life is impoverished by fear, and it is enriched in proportion to one’s willingness to daily rise above every fear.

A young acquaintance of Douglas’ was also recovering from illness. But he had a different, less conventional doctor who told him to seek therapy through nothing more complex than hiking in the hills outside of town "to develop his lungs and legs." The timeless and great adventure of the outdoors as therapy was opened to Douglas.

He writes, "An overwhelming light swept me. My resolution was instantaneous. I would do the same. I would make my legs strong on the foothills. Thus I started my treks, and used the foothills as one uses weights or bars in a gymnasium……Following these hikes the muscles of my knees would twitch and make it difficult for me to sleep at night. But I felt an increasing flow of health in my legs, and a growing sense of contentment in my heart."

What an incredible and fine (and rich) experience for a spindly young polio victim to feel a flow of health in the legs and a growing sense of contentment in the heart. What a rich experience for anyone. It was an experience that Douglas would never have known had he abided by the conventional and fearful medical wisdom of the time. Conventional wisdom is sometimes rooted in fear; the antidote to fear, whether physical, social, emotional, mental or spiritual, is adventure. There is no adventure without risk, and even if Douglas’ early walks had killed him, he would have died with health in his legs and contentment in his heart instead of being filled with fear and failure.

William O. Douglas did not die before 40 as his doctor predicted. He lived to be 82. From the foundation of his early walks that made the muscles in his knees twitch and kept him awake at night, Douglas built a life of adventure, accomplishment, satisfaction and deep and lasting contribution to the world.

For the rest of his long life he was a passionate mountaineer, explorer, fisherman and spokesman for the environment. He served for 36 years (1939-1975) as a U.S Supreme Court Justice, the longest term of any justice in history. He was an astute and fierce defender of the rights of men, including the disenfranchised, the weak, the poor and the sick, as determined by the rule of law. It is safe to say that the mountains and rivers, lakes and forests, plains and deserts and all the creatures who live within them have never had a better friend on the U.S. Supreme Court than William Douglas.

In my opinion, the laws of the United States have never had a better friend on the Supreme Court, though there are people who will disagree.

He was able to be a friend to the world because his character was formed by adventure, not fear. "When a man knows how to live dangerously," he wrote, "he is not afraid to die. When he is not afraid to die, he is, strangely, free to live. When he is free to live, he can become bold, courageous, reliant. There are many ways to learn how to live dangerously……We can keep our freedom through the increasing crises of history only if we are self-reliant enough to be free. We cannot become self-reliant if our dominant desire is to be safe and secure; under that influence we could never face and overcome the adversities of this competitive age. We will be self-reliant only if we have a real appetite for independence."

Rich and thoughtful words from a great man who lived a complete and adventure-filled life because he took a walk in the hills one day when walking itself was an almost overwhelming adventure.


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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.