This I Believe

Dr. Malcolm - Lawrence, Kansas
Entered on May 19, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: hope

I believe in the power of HOPE. This is a learned belief, one I acquired from working with one of America’s pioneer psychiatrists, Dr. Karl Menninger. When Dr. Menninger, who had been a bestselling author, a founder of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, and an ardent activist for the rights of the mentally ill and abused children, died in 1990, I sat in the front row at his funeral.

The minister started his eulogy by proclaiming, “I know where Dr. Karl is right now.” Those of us who knew him, took a deep breath. “He’s up there in Heaven, arguing.” We all laughed. Those of us who were close to this great teacher and reformer knew that it might be true. “And I know what he’s arguing, said the minister, I know, because he had this argument with me many times over his 92 years. You see in 1st Corinthians it says, “Faith, Hope, Love, and Charity and the greatest of these is love. Well, Dr. Menninger didn’t believe that. What he always argued with me is that the greatest of these is hope”

I knew what the minister said was true, because over the 20 years I had worked with Dr. Menninger, he had always put hope first in his clinical work, in his creation of programs for children, in his community activism and in his writing such incredible books as “The Crime Of Punishment,” “The Vital Balance” and “Whatever Became of Sin.” He had hoped for the power of personal reformation as he adamantly opposed the death penalty. He had hoped for hardened criminals as he sought and gained humane change in the Kansas justice system. And he had demonstrated hope for institutions for the mentally ill as he and his brother and father had built one of the most caring and effective mental hospitals in the country. In the last part of his life, he hoped for children in the foster care system by applying his incredible talents to creating healing programs for them.

The most powerful lesson this great teacher ever taught about hope came as a challenge. One day shortly before his death he was giving a lecture in a conference room at the Menninger Clinic. I was an observer as about 35 of the most pre-eminent psychiatrists in the country had come to pay homage to the 90-year-old dean of American Psychiatry. He waited for all of them to be seated around a huge oak table and then took his chair. Wearing an ancient white lab coat and peering through horn-rimmed bifocals, this incredible healer who had befriended Helen Keller, H.L. Mencken, and Ann Landers waited until all eyes were upon him. He taught by challenge. “The lesson for today,” the old teacher said, “is about HOPE. Now, I want to ask you a question,” he said to the gathered clinicians, “How many of you, in your practice back home are treating HOPELESS cases.” A master of the pregnant pause, old Dr. Menninger leaned back in his chair and stared at the group. There was silence, but after several minutes, one brave women raised her hand. Slowly, other hands began to go up. Soon, 30 hands were raised around the table.

Dr. Menninger leaned back in his chair and stared at them. “If they’re hopeless,” he bellowed, “Well why in the Hell are you treating them!” All hands dropped. The gathered eminent MD’s looked like schoolchildren. “Now,” Dr Menninger quipped, “How many of you are treating MILDLY HOPEFUL clients.” All hands flew into the air. The point was well taken.

Eighteen years later, I have an article framed on my wall. It is simply entitled ‘Hope,” by Karl A. Menninger, MD. It was written in 1949, shortly after Dr. Menninger had been the first physician to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, as chief psychiatrist for the Veteran’s Administration. There he had found prisoners who lived without love, faith or charity. He was convinced that they had survived on HOPE. I think about my teacher often, hoping that others will learn what he knew to be so true. I learned from this great teacher to believe in, look for, and relish HOPE.