Dr South

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I woke up this morning with the lyrics of the above titled song playing in my head in the fashion of what my musician husband, Roger, calls an “earworm.”  Because I seemed unable to turn it off, I took it as a sign.  Thus, I will defer to this involuntary invasion of my waking moments and change the working title of this missive. (It had earlier been …  “Make America Intelligent Again: Which Hat Will You Be Wearing Now?”)

It was a strange but lovely Christmas season … by necessity, many old traditions went unobserved. This season, which normally would bring friends and family from near and far into our homes celebrating with the usual firecrackers, food, drink, hugs and general tomfoolery, simply came and went too quickly. Like so much of the other regrettable dysfunction of 2020, I am wondering what memories of this year our children will form and carry with them into adulthood.  

One seasonal ‘must’ that we did not neglect was watching our favorite film versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  The holiday viewpoints of the misogynistic skinflint Scrooge inevitably clashed with those of his joyful nephew, Fred, and the classic “Bah! Humbug!” retort was heard once again.  

Nephew Fred observed that Christmas was the one time of the year when we can come together and view each other as “fellow-passengers to the grave.”  If we could carry this notion throughout the year we likely could better sympathize with the flaws and failings of other members of our human race.

Every Christmas greeting card seems to include a wish for “Peace in the New Year.” We breathed a little easier after surviving the utter toxicity, fear and insanity in so many facets of life in the infamous 2020 year, and we rejoiced to hear that the Covid-19 vaccine had arrived.  But … January 2021 has regretfully also seemed to get off on the wrong foot. There is no need to belabor and rehash the events of the past few days. The images and stories surrounding the recent violence in Washington have been seared into our vision.

I feel compelled to share with you the text of an e-mail that I just received from my friend and colleague Dr. Thomas Dobbs (our chief Mississippi State Health Officer.) Since last March, Dr. Dobbs has worked ceaselessly and tirelessly heading up the war against Covid-19 in Mississippi. Here, he is recounting an event that he had just experienced while taking an evening walk in his Jackson neighborhood on Jan. 7.  

The following is the text of his e-mail:

“January 7,, 2021, at 9:27 PM, Dobbs, Thomas E <Thomas.Dobbs@msdh.ms.gov> wrote:

“I ALMOST SAW SOMEONE GET SHOT TONIGHT”

“I know this is an atypical communication, but I just had the most remarkable experience. I saw a young man almost get shot this evening. It made me think about the importance of de-escalation and the value of human life.

 I watched a man point a gun at a young black man who was acting erratically. He did not shoot. How different would things have been if he had pulled the trigger?

I was taking a brief walk to stretch my legs after the day’s work. It was dark and I heard a commotion emanating from a residence not far from my home. A young black man emerged from a home followed by construction workers. From what I could gather, the young man had walked into the home while they were working and had damaged some dry wall they were preparing. The young man was clearly agitated and unpredictable. The verbal interchange was full of expletives. At one point I thought it would come to blows.

 The young man wandered off, walking up to random residences, but was unable to gain entrance. He did not try to break in, but seemed to think he could get in. He was behaving erratically, either because of intoxication or mental illness. If it were not so serious, it would have been comical, watching him strike kung-fu poses, inviting a fight.    

 There was a home with the garage door open. The young man tried to enter but was confronted by the owner. As the wife retreated behind the door, the husband pulled a handgun and pointed it at the young man. The young man pressed forward.

 The young man was threatening. He even taunted the homeowner to shoot him.

 I asked the young man to take a walk with me and asked him if I could call someone for him. He was distracted from the home and came toward me with a somewhat menacing posture. But he was unarmed and unlikely to really hurt me. There was an odd mixture of aggression and acknowledgment as we walked away from the garage. The erratic behavior continued. He ran to another home and then around another and sat beneath the back porch. That provided enough time for the police to arrive. They handled the young man perfectly; calmly and directly. They were both black officers. He seemed to be less aggressive in his interactions with them.  

 I’m not sure if he was intoxicated or psychotic (it seemed like a mixture of both). It reminds me of some of the poisoning episodes we have seen with synthetic cannabinoids. But he is alive. And maybe tomorrow he will back to normal, or in mental health treatment, but he won’t be dead.

 During the entire episode, which lasted about 20 minutes, my thoughts revolved around the many black men who have died recently in similar episodes. Could this have been the next Walter Wallace?  I’m so thankful for that single moment of mild de-escalation. It’s amazing to think - that small thing could have been the difference between life and death.  – Thomas”

For almost anyone this would have been quite a hair-raising experience, a character-defining ‘fight or flight moment.’ In my opinion, Dr. Thomas Dobbs probably saved this young man’s life with his calm, caring and extremely brave response to this potentially violent and deadly situation.

I shared this with my very dear friend Dr. Patrick Chapman, a man who wears at least three hats … Tippah County Hospital Administrator, counseling psychologist, and minister of the gospel.

His reply to Thomas’ letter … “This story reigns legion throughout the land.  Our society is riddled with mentally ill persons, still worse is that so many are also dually addicted to substances. The boundaries nowadays are so blurred between substance abuse and psychosis that who knows which came first – the chicken or the egg!?  Sadly, it seems there is no end in sight.”

This is such a heart-rending observation when you think about how pervasive severe mental illness with co-morbid drug abuse truly has become in our entire society. Compound this with the life stressors faced during this pandemic year and then observe that in the small rural areas of Mississippi our only current solution to address an acute mental health breakdown is ‘the county jail,’ the situation becomes quite desperate and deplorable.

Sadly, the Mayberry RFD world is a thing long past for our communities. We might wish for Sheriff Andy Taylors who have no need to carry a weapon, for Deputy Barney Fifes with an unloaded pistol and one bullet in his pocket, or for a county jail that only contains Otis the town drunk, sleeping off a bender in an unlocked cell.  Even small-town America has societally regressed into a futuristic version of the “Wild West” where justice seems only meted out by blood in the streets. This subject cries for more exploration, for more attention, on every level … worldwide, national, local and personal.

Back to my ‘earworm’ song … Jill Jackson-Miller was a Western B-movie actress in the 1930s. She wrote the lyrics to this song while healing from a suicide attempt after the dissolution of her first marriage. Jill said she composed the lyrics after her discovery of the “life-saving joy of God’s unconditional love.”  Her husband Sy Miller added the music of the tune in 1955 and it is now considered a Christmas song. “Let There Be Peace on Earth” has been successfully recorded by many significant artists in the 65 years since.

“Let there be peace on earth,

And let it begin with me.

Let there be peace on earth,

The peace that was meant to be.

We are family.

Let us walk with each other

In perfect harmony.”

As we approach the Dr. Martin Luther King day observation, let us pray for this peace that passes all understanding, let us pray without ceasing for our country, and the future of our children … pray for our collective health, for national civility and stability, for true and sane leadership, for strength for our new President to endure these overwhelming challenges, and pray for deep wisdom, patience and endurance in all Americans during 2021 and beyond.

“Act on and walk into what you know to be true. Start local. Reach out beyond your comfort zone. Commit to nonviolence. Always protect the dignity of others. Walk together.  In this, the stone of hope is hewn.”

- John Paul Lederach, American Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. Lederach is a Mennonite Christian, and as he wrote in his 1999 book Journey Toward Reconciliation (ISBN 978-0836190823), his Christian faith has affected both his thinking and application of non-violent solutions to conflict. In 2000, he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award.[11]

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