Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Holder of the "Why" Gene

It has been said that funerals and memorials are not for the dead, they’re for the living, for those of us left behind, a moment to pause, to reflect on what is gone, and that which lies ahead.

We now all reflect on a Bill Mitchell who was unique to each of us, depending on when and where we met him and, of course, who we are.

The Bill I know had an abundance of the three H’s: humor, honesty, and honor. When I think back on our years together I don’t remember Bill ever telling “a joke," but I can’t think of him without remembering his sly smile or infectious laugh. I never knew him to say or imply anything dishonest or deceitful – he was who he was and he liked others the same. And his honor was boundless – for his family, naturopathy, and nature, to name only the topics we spoke of the most.

Bill Mitchell, to me, falls into that category of “old-time naturopathic physician.” Since I’ve heard this title applied to me, I like to think that it has nothing to do with age, but rather a way of thinking. Bill honored naturopathic tradition in a way that only someone with a solid grounding in science can do. He believed its historic tradition, but also its scientific validation. And he was joyous to see it work – to see it help people be healthier.

“Old-time naturopathy” does not mean abandoning science, but rather the opposite - including science in its deepest, most wholistic application; beyond cause and effect to interconnectedness.

As an “old-time naturopath” Bill was a guy who never stopped asking “Why?” Some people have this question beaten out of them by unimaginative parents, teachers, medical schools, but Bill had the “Why?” gene imbedded into his DNA makeup and continued to nourish it.

The problem with that “Why?” gene is that there are a great many puzzles in the world. Even if you only confine yourself to naturopathy, you can spend a lot of time reading chemistry books, history, listening to lectures, experimenting, even tasting and smelling tinctures. It can also put you at odds with others - the charlatans, the opportunists, the intellectually lazy.

As some of you know, Bill was concerned about where some in naturopathy are drifting. It worried, and perplexed him, that many naturopaths have jumped into the practice of writing prescriptions for drugs. He didn’t question this because he was contrary, or stubbornly “old-time," but rather because he was afraid that the ease of writing a prescription would lead to leaving out the “Why?” question. A doctor who prescribes an antibiotic, a sleeping pill, or a hormone doesn’t need to ask “Why isn’t this patient’s immune system or brain or gland making its own antibodies, neurotransmitters, or hormone?” To Bill these questions were fundamental to how he practiced medicine and he wanted young naturopaths to share the thrill of answering “Why?”

Like most of our traits, for better or worse, this “Why?” gene brought Bill the joy of discovery, but it could also torture him. When you have the trait, you can’t protect yourself from the same question. Self exploration is part of living life to its fullest. Bill wanted that, wanted a full life. He pushed himself into scary places. And he often went to those places alone. Fortunately for us, he was willing to share his experiences with us.

Asking “Why?” questions of himself and others gave Bill a grounding that inspired him to move ahead, to explore, to keep trying. And when you combine the “Why? Gene with the three H’s – the humor, honesty and honor – you have a quietly inspiring, likable guy. Someone I will love till the end of my days.

Tom Ballard, ND '82