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 Platos "Republic"
and, to his dismay, some of Platos 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. Platos
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
Platos 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 Id 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 ones
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
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
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.