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The Measure of a Man

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 03, 2008

The last week of December was tragic and tortuous. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the tearing apart of Kenya because of a rigged election demonstrated the fragility of human existence and how much we live on the edge. I have traveled to both countries, seen their beauty and feel much sympathy for their citizens' pain. During the last week I have also had to make painful decisions about my treatment for a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Over the last two weeks I have also reflected on my reading that included Sidney Poitier's The Measure of a Man; James Watson's Avoid Boring People and The Double Helix; Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault's The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature and Dr. Glenn Bubley's What Your Doctor May Not Tell You about Prostate Cancer.

I was struck by the simplicity of What Your Doctor May Tell You About Prostate Cancer (a must reading for every man); the quiet dignity of The Measure of a Man; the eloquence of Avoid Boring People; and the fierce intellectualism of The Chomsky-Foucault Debate. In these readings I have been guided-perhaps struck is a better word-by Poitier's admonition: "I had to stay in charge of my life no matter how it all played out. Regardless of whatever (or whoever) else might have been looking out for me, I needed to know, first and foremost, that I was looking out for myself." Poitier does not mean to be selfish or egoistical in his assertion. He wishes to argue for the principle of self-reliance and a truism that each of us is responsible for his destiny or the choices he or she makes.

Poitier's central message is this: no matter what challenges life throws in one's direction, one should never fly in the face of God-as my mother would say-nor ask "Why Me?" A dear friend of mine has a simple answer to that question: "Why Not Me? What makes you so special that you should be exempt from life's trials and tribulations?"

Poitier was also a victim of prostrate cancer. Having elected to remove his prostate, "an expendable organ" as Dr. Bubley reminds us, Poitier confesses: "Surgery left me naked to myself and to the world, with prostate and camouflage removed. Shortcomings, weaknesses, frailties, vulnerabilities, inadequacies, self-doubts, and all-my total reality in plain sight. No less flawed than most, and no longer burdened by the need to appear otherwise." And, with the humility that sickness imposes on us, Poitier acknowledged: "With blunt honesty, my cancer said, 'You're not a star; you're a human being, vulnerable like all the rest.'"

Dr. Bubley, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, humanizes the disease. Each year in the United States "more than 1,000,000 men are diagnosed with a prostate disease, and another 180,000 with prostate cancer." It is the most common form of cancer found in men. After lung cancer, it is the leading cause of cancer death in men.

Black men are particularly vulnerable. Prostate cancer is found in "180.6 per 100,000 among African Americans, seven times the rate of among Koreans, the group with the lowest rate." While no one is sure why black men are so susceptible to this disease, they need to protect themselves from it. From the age of forty, they should do annual tests so that it can be detected early.

Dr. Watson draws his lessons from the scientific world. Although he has made many racist statements (he says that Africans are less intelligent than whites) his book makes for fascinating reading. He says one should only accept advice that comes from experience rather than revelation; and that knowing "why" is more important than learning "what." He suggests that one avoids boring people and insists that "hypocrisy in search of social acceptance erodes your self-respect." Poitier offers a similar message in his autobiography. In fact, his life is a struggle to maintain his dignity-his measure as a man-in spite of all the attempts to deny him self respect. He preferred to remain a loner rather than opt for social acceptance.

At Harvard, Cambridge or Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York Dr. Watson surrounded himself with the best available minds, preferable with scientists who showed scientific promise rather than those who lived on their past glories. It helped him to win a Nobel Prize; create an atmosphere for others to win Nobel prizes; and to develop one of most important scientific laboratories in the world.

Chomsky and Foucault, two of the world's most important philosophers (Foucault died in 1985) discusses what constitutes innate human nature, each from his specific discipline. Each placed his faith in the fundamental human emotion of sympathy and a search for justice rather than sanctifying institutions of centralized power. The quest for originality, creativity and posing questions to politics are indispensable to creating a new consciousness among people.

These authors have much to say about human nature. It is well that we ponder their sentiments. We will need much sympathy and courage as we face life's challenges in the coming year.

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