Norman Cousins

World Peace

VTR Date: October 29, 1981

Guest: Cousins, Norman


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Cousins
Title: World Peace
VTR: 10/29/81

HEFFNER: …the entire world, and feels that a certain measure of dedication is called for in making those hopes come true. Then, I believe, we have a real basis for optimism. Well today in the 1980s, Norman Cousins hasn’t changed his mind. He’s still convinced that our destiny is in our own hands and we can and we must exercise our human options. Indeed, that is the title of his autobiographical notebook just published by W. W. Norton and Company, Human Options.

Norman, thanks for joining me today in talking about those options, but as optimistic as you are…you know, I’ve never really been able to share with quite the same enthusiasm and vivacity those beliefs…here, in Human Options, you say, you write, “Progress is possible only when people believe in the possibilities of growth and change”. And as we look around, I think there tends to be more people who are as pessimistic as I am than are as optimistic as you are, so if that’s true, what chance is there?

COUSINS: Let’s see first where do we agree? I think we both agree that we have to view our problems at their starkest, and we ought never to minimize the depth or the seriousness of any of the situations you’ve described. There I agree with you. But I think you’ve got something else, and that has to do with what a human being is, and how you bring about those changes of responses in human beings that can make a difference in meeting those same problems. In that sense, I repeat, we don’t minimize our problems, but we don’t underestimate our capacity for dealing with them. And it seems to me increasingly, that the human race is being divided into two groups, and only two groups. And I think that the principle groups are not Communism and Democracy, but rather a way of looking at problems. And one group looks at these problems and gives up and feels that there’s no way to take hold, and the other looks at the problems and says that human beings are unique because they can do something for the first time. So they start thinking, they start brooding, they start communicating, they create…and they act. In Viet Nam, for example, very few people would have thought that the United States, during the depths of the Viet Nam War, would have withdrawn. But the fact of the matter is that they had to withdraw, not because of what was happening in Viet Nam, but because of what was happening right here in the United States. Nixon resigned the presidency…the first time this happened…not because of Watergate itself, but because of the peoples’ response to Watergate. Now, it’s that process that I’m talking about. It seems to me that if more people invested the same kind of emotion and energy into the kind of response that they had about Watergate and Viet Nam, and have that same attitude in respect to the Arms Race or any of the other problems, they would create a magnificent and unstoppable force for change. That’s what I’m saying. So my optimism is not based on any difference with you over the seriousness of the problem. Nor is it based on even the likelihood of response. All I’m doing is saying is that we have the capacity to respond. And with you I ask the question: “Will we respond?” I think we can respond if we believe in ourselves. This is where the real issue is.

HEFFNER: If we believe in ourselves, if we pick up those human options.

COUSINS: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Norman, if you were a betting man, what would the bet be? That’s not an unfair question.

COUSINS: Well, if I were a betting man I’d be very careful not to put my bets down on anything I don’t want to see happen, because you have a way of fulfilling your expectations. I would like to believe, Dick, that the human species is capable of anything that really requires decision and action. We’ve seen it happen in the past. We saw it happen, for example, at the Test Ban Treaty. The Test Ban Treaty…was very, very slight at the outset of the fight, but the fact of the matter is that, that we worked with public opinion, we defined the need, we got people interested, we got aroused, we set loose their long imagination, and their indignation. We translated that into political pressure, and the political pressure worked. It didn’t work overwhelmingly. We’re just getting through. But the fact of the matter is it DID work to a sufficient degree. Again, I cite Watergate, Watergate and Viet Nam.

So this is not just a matter of having faith in the process. What it means is that we have to have faith in ourselves to rethink the process. It seems to me that the test of any free society is represented by the range of options it offers its people and the kind of options it offers its people. Just as the test of freedom itself is represented by the ability of human beings to understand those options, to recognize those options, and to put them to work. History doesn’t work by itself. History gets its energy, gets its ideas of change from its people. Ideas of emotion represent the difference.

HEFFNER: You’re concerned that a pessimistic prophecy will become self-fulfilled.

COUSINS: That’s right. I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a solution unless you believe that the solution is possible, because in the act of keeping your head down, you’re not going to see the horizon.

HEFFNER: Norman, this is a question that I’ve been asking you since the 1950s, and I’m very serious about it, because you’ve always been a very positive person. I mean, you wrote in Options, it’s appropriate that you subtitled it “An Autobiographical Notebook”, because you’ve always talked and thought in terms of picking up those options. But suppose while we’re “yea-saying” rather than “nay-saying” we spend our time that way, rather than looking at a third option, if I may. Do you think that by dichotomizing the human condition that way, the human personality that way, the “yea-sayers” and the “nay-sayers” we’re missing the possibility of adapting to this human condition in some other way, that doesn’t involve, let’s say, your optimism or my pessimism?

COUSINS: Well, one of the problems, perhaps, is as you say, that we may be exhausting ourselves out of the “nay-saying”, not that may be relevant, but what is relevant is the fact that we can see the problem for what it is, and equally relevant is that we’re still alive, so we’re able to do something about it. There comes a point, of course, in which you go beyond the point of no return. I don’t think that even you, a hardened pessimist, would say that we’ve gone beyond the point of no return. It simply means that we have the time to contemplate a problem, time to contemplate a problem, and certainly the time to do something about it. Therefore, at some point, we have to stop contemplating and start acting, and that, in that sense, I would certainly agree.

HEFFNER: Well, there is a, there’s a point here, let’s see, page 20 of your book on human options, you say again: “Progress is possible only when people believe in the possibility of growth and change.” And then a little later on you say: “War is an invention of the human mind. The human mind can invent peace.” I know that you said the counterpart of this, when you took over the Saturday Review, what year was it?

COUSINS: 1940.

HEFFNER: Okay. Have we invented peace yet? If not, what’s wrong with this mechanism, the human mind? Haven’t we tapped our brains sufficiently?

COUSINS: No, we haven’t invented peace, and I’m going to resist the temptation, because I feel …in saying that the big war that we dreaded has not happened. I…because I don’t think we’re on safe ground. Not by a long shot. But you’ve got to realize, as I’m sure you do, Dick, that we’re engaged in a historical process, an anthropological problem, which is to get people to think about themselves differently from the way in which they have always thought about themselves. We’ve tended to protect our society, our own inadequate views of ourselves as individuals, our own inadequate view of what life is. We tend to look for it within our limits. We tend to externalize. We tend to look elsewhere for solutions, we go to a bottle and expect to get the pill out of the pill to do everything that we wanted to do. We don’t recognize the extent to which we have to be in control ourselves. And it seems to me that that is part of the process, but the greatest changes in history, one of the profoundest mistakes that can be made is to say that human nature is fixed, that people are always the same. They’re not always the same. Their outlook changes, their reflexes change. Their ambitions, their aspirations change. People…and it’s our job, those of us with ideas, to recognize that this is the way that civilization gets its basic energy. Civilization gets its energy not from its dynamos, but from ideas. Ideas represent the basic force and it’s our job to aid and develop those ideas that have to do with making a safe and rich place for the future of the human race.

HEFFNER: And it’s interesting. You say we have to focus on those ideas. You said, too, a moment ago, that we function within our limitations, and I gather from Human Options and from other things that you’ve written that you, at this point, are very much concerned with coming to understand more about our capacity, about our limitations, about our possibilities…about the human brain itself.

COUSINS: That’s right. When I wrote my previous book, The Anatomy of an Illness, I was concerned about those limitations with respect to illness. And it seemed to me that people who are seriously ill don’t recognize the extent to which they possess specific forces. The doctor’s not the healer. You are the healer. The healing system is inside you. The doctor’s job is to release that healing system, to put it to work at its optimum. Most people don’t understand the extent to which they have the potentiality of control. Well, I think that was true of the individual. I think it’s also true of society, just an aggregation of individual hopes. The extent to which there are possibilities is not fully recognized. The extent to which history is malleable is not sufficiently recognized. We tend not to just accept our own helplessness, but in fact, almost to worship it. We worship helplessness every time we think the cause is outside us and therefore the solution must lie far out there. My underlying purpose in writing this book, as a matter of fact, was to deal with the helplessness of individual, with concern not just to their own health, which I did in the previous book, but with the illness of society itself. How as a component part of that society do you deal with human illness, with forces locked within the individual that have to be released, fighting that larger illness? My optimism, such as it is, and I’m not sure that I’m an optimist in that sense, but such as it is, it is based on the fact that we’re just beginning to understand the uniqueness of human beings and what the possibilities of human beings are. I’ve gone progressively from the attempt to find out what the changes are that take place in the human brain, the changes in biochemistry inside us that take place as the result of attitudes; an attempt to find out what those forces are inside society that can be tapped to bring about these great changes. With respect to the first, which is to say, the catch in between our attitudes, the way we think and what happens to us, there’s no doubt in my mind, Dick, that just as the negative emotions produce all sorts of biochemical changes…panic, for example will produce a constriction of the blood vessels, fear and anger will cause a certain flooding of epinephrine in the bloodstream that affects the heart, affects the endocrine system…Now, just as we know that there are these negative affects of the negative emotions, it seems to me that there are specific affects on the upside as well. The wild dream is really the first step to reality. What we believe helps to determine the direction in which we go. The healing system begins in the belief system. So I think that attitudes in respect to illness or with respect to the approach to the problems of society…attitudes are not only where…begins, this is where we get our energy. This is what makes history change. And the more we know about the human brain, it seems to me, the more respect we have to have for human uniqueness, the more respect we have to have for powers of change that are within individuals, unfortunately, all too often locked within individuals waiting for release. And I think the more importance we’re going to attach to the malleability of history, we’ll be able to believe that things are possible. Now, I don’t say this just in the rhetorical sense, because failure is always out there. Failure is our constant companion, with all the puddles we can fall into. But the fact of the matter is that we would have more respect for our prospects in direct proportion to what our respect for a human being is. You see, the thing that makes a human being unique is the ability of human beings to do something for the first time. And we are called upon today to do many things for the first time. We’re called upon to solve the problem of war for the first time. But I think that we can do this, because for the first time, the whole of the human species is involved. I think we can do it because there are answers. I think that the answers lie within the reach of human intelligence. And so as long as there ARE answers, it’s our job not just to identify them, but to put them to work, and to connect our energies to those answers.

It’s going to be a very tough fight. Survival has never been easy. But for the first time we have the means of putting human beings where the dinosaurs are. In short, the human race has become its own worst enemy. The things we create can destroy us. In fact, nothing we produce in this world is in as much abundance as destructive force. We now have the equivalent of about 20,000 pounds of TNT, the destructive force equivalent for every human being in the world. And each day we add to that destructive force. Each day we produce, for stockpiles, 7 or 8 more nuclear explosives. We already have enough nuclear stockpiles to destroy the world many times over. But still we do it! It’s a form of natural madness. We think there is security, in short, in accumulation, and that’s as much as a fallacy with force as anything else. It seems to me that the time has come to recognize that our security depends on our ability to control force, to control ourselves, and not just to accumulate force, which is to lose control of ourselves.

HEFFNER: You’ve said it so eloquently that the human race obviously, is the race between that ultimate destruction and the capacity to expand our brain power, our capacity to rescue ourselves from the situation. I won’t comment again on the betting on who wins the race, but I’m so interested in terms of your new involvements with the medical school at UCLA…what do you see in terms of brain research? How close are we coming to expanding our minds, expanding our capacity to meet these challenges?

COUSINS: Well, there’s a great deal of movement in this direction. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is where the frontier of medicine is today, greater knowledge of what a human being is. When I first came to UCLA to the Brain Research Institute there three years ago, I asked for a list of the secretions produced by the human brain. And I got a list after a while of 37 secretions. That was very impressive. Within one year the list doubled. Today there are 2,000 and still counting. All of these secretions that are produced by the human brain have a place in the economy of the human being, and many of them are created by human attitudes. In short, we become ill not because we’re attacked by a disease bug, but because our threshold has changed, our immune system has been affected. The immune system is affected by things that go on in the mind. People who are fearful, who are depressed, who are grieving for a long, long time, unrelieved grieving, unrelieved depression, set themselves up for catastrophic illness. Conversely, people who are not thrown by stress…we all have to deal with stress…but people who learn how to deal with stress, who regard it as a challenge, who are careful not to allow it to take over the whole of their lives, but who get a great deal of fun out of life, who take great pride in living, who see life as the greatest prize in the universe, who are in motion with their ideas and with their lives, people who laugh, people who know how to relate to other people, people who care; these are the ingredients of health, no less than the food we eat, the exercise we take. They’re not a substitute for food, they’re not a substitute for exercise, but they’re part of a total equation I hope we will respect.

HEFFNER: Norman, when you talk about the economy of the brain do you think it’s going to be a free economy or a control economy? I’m very serious about that. I think of 1984, I think of Brave New World. I think of all of those prophecies of the past generations.

COUSINS: Well, in George Orwell’s 1984…H.G. Wells said that we’re in a race between education and catastrophe, if you recall. It was very prophetic. And that race is still on. But it’s not over, so we still have a chance. And the fact that we have a chance, is, I think, more than enough to understand where we have to go and get on with it. But the danger, of course, in what I say, is that it tends to be rhetorical. People say, “Well, it’s not as bad as I thought” and go about their business. And I would feel unhappy indeed, if this were the affect of what we’re talking about. The affect I hope to give, based on what you’ve said, and what I’ve tried to say, Dick is that people recognize that the price they have to pay for belonging to a species that has intelligence that can do things for the first time…the price we have to pay is a certain citizenship in the human community, and not just citizenship in a nation. And this larger citizenship requires concerns for where this species itself is going, requires awareness of…but also requires an ability to connect those concerns, those dreams to other people. If you and I conspire long enough about these things, we’ll want to get a third person, and a fourth. We’ll want to start a movement. Or better still, we’ll discover that organizations DO exist, that other people DO agree with us. What we have to do is tie these concerns together and ignite them.

HEFFNER: Norman, is that igniting process going to take place at the hands of politicians, poets, or the medical researchers who are finding out more and more about what our capacities are?

COUSINS: Well, you’ve identified a very vital trinity. In the Platonic sense, we can’t do without politicians or philosophers or poets. And by poets, I suppose you mean anyone who dares to dream that we can have a better world than we have now. By philosophers, I take it that you mean those people who want to ask searching questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going and why we’re going there. And by politicians, you’re thinking of people who are concerned with the engineering of consent. And when you put them all together and give them a certain rhythm and a certain destination I think we can get the kind of motion that even we peasants (???) can respect. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You seem to feel they’re going to be pushed, they’re going to be charged in a sense. Their energies will be liberated by the medical people finding out a little more about, as you said, what it means to be a human being.

COUSINS: Well, Dick, you see, in answer to your first question about who can reasonably be optimistic these days, if we were dealing with a species that’s locked in, a species who could only leap five feet across a chasm, and the chasm is six feet or eight feet, that would e one thing. But you’re dealing here with a changing species, a species that is not afraid of a four minute mile. The runner Roger Bannister did the four minute mile for the first time in history six other people did it in one year. You had a race in which six people finished the same race in under 4 minutes. So we are part of an evolving species, an improving species. But we have to recognize that we are capable of these jumps, we are capable of big leaps. We tend to believe that evolution means we have to wait a million years before we can have discernable change. Change is impossible if you believe it impossible. Once you have a notion of what of that leap you can take, the four minute mile, there’s no way of holding you back.

HEFFNER: Norman, I’m not really a pessimist…I couldn’t really be, because I’ve listened to you for too many years. Thank you for joining me today in discussing Human Options. Thank you, Norman Cousins. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions about the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me care of this station.

Join Richard Heffner on The Open Mind next Friday morning when his guest will be Ed Koch, Mayor of New York City, who will discuss his recent landslide victory and his plans for the future.