Confessions of a Xenophile

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It is not what parents say or do that affects their children most, but what parents are.  After my father died I searched for one or two words that might encapsulate what he was.  I came up with two:  xenophilia– love of the foreign, the not known; and oligophilia, a term I use to mean the love of everything, and will further define below.  Both my parents lived as if the world were one place and every place: in the Filipinas and Nevada thrice, Mexico twice, Washington State, Canada twice, Oregon once, and Minnesota during my long cold college years, once. Yet wherever we were, our earthen and fleshy roots were in Superior California, as the Sacramento Bee used to call it in a less politically anaphylaxis prone time.

Whenever  my parents found themselves in some remote mining camp with no adequate schooling I was shipped off to my maternal grandparents in Durham, California, about 7 miles south of Chico on old highway 99E. During high school and college I made my way back there every summer to work the almonds, alfalfa, barley, and sheep.   Xenofilia is multigenerational; my father’s parents were Methodists, formally adopted by the Concow branch of the Maidu; (in that sense I am ½ Concow.)  They were involved personally with the building of dozens of churches in California, Hawaii, and in Panama, the birthplace of my oldest daughter, who is therefore, like John MCane, eligible to be president there.

Considered risk-taking is a phenotypic feature of xenophilia; but the afflicted have a great need to maintain physical and psychological control of self.  The risk is considered, calculated.  For example, I have never been able to resist plunging into an abandoned mine; and yet, never been able become 110% drunk. I once tried, while my sister, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, looked over me. I couldn’t let go. Barring the calculated risk of trauma, xenophilia does not appear to threaten longevity, as all my grandparents and parents lived well into their 10th decades. So as a xenophile I feel I must keep the future in view while flailing about the world in the present.

Impermanence has other consequences. Xenophiles have no lifelong friends other than family; again and again childhood friends come and go; period. Words, memes, ideas, are understood as more faithful friends than individuals. I am still solitary, given to introspection, and reflection, rather than to social graces. I have a lifelong problem remembering names; though I never forget a face or a place or lose my way in the mountains I can lose my way in a building! It is terribly embarrassing to know that you know a person without knowing who it is you know!   By contrast remembered places hold great meaning to a xenophile because they are, unlike persons, always there, even when changed; they are sessile. Perhaps this is why the Xenophile is ever hopeful to return and see the remembered if altered face of a known place.

The xenophile  is naturally, almost unconsciously as  adaptable as a chameleon because he must quickly undergo inner as well as outer change; take on the manners, the speech, even the mind of the ‘other’; and as quickly shed it all for a new persona in a new place.  To ingest a new language is second nature to the Xenophile.

That linguistic facility and preoccupation can even be embarrassing or perceived as an insult, a mockery; when my father answered the phone, within seconds he unconsciously began to speak in the accents, and to use the mannerisms of speech of the person on the other end of the line.  The xenophile, having seen so many different absolute truths and ways to do or to believe,  is not submissive or respectful of dogma; is always driven to seek alternatives, and is necessarily tolerant of contrary opinions; may be considered a reed rather than a rock.

A corollary of xenophilia is oligophilia although this is a modern word term so far as I can discover. I use it here to mean the love of the undifferentiated all, rather an Aristotelian meaning of loving oligarchy. I offer it as a subset of philosophy, which can be defined as the love of knowledge without any particular reference to experience. The Oligophilic, in my use of the term, is a generalist who suspects that knowledge without experience is empty at the least, and at the most, dangerous. I sometimes fear that the scientism we worship today puts our civilization at that very risk: knowledge and power without spiritual experience or reference.

The oligophile feels that experience, and the humility that it promotes, makes knowledge meaningful and useful. The oligophilic prefers to both learn and to experience a little about everything rather than everything about a little.  For these reasons, the he expects that beginning a new career, or entering a new field will at first put him at a disadvantage in one sense but will offer distinct advantages of perspective.  My own medical career began with an interest in tropical medicine (Panama Canal Zone); Then general surgery. (CT Miller Hospital St Paul Minnesota; Then Aviation medicine (AVP 49 USN drafted!); then General Practice, Woodland CA; Then occupational medicine UCD; Then the private practice of community health (Farm worker clinics Yolo/Solano, and Salud clinic W Sacramento); Then emergency medicine (PMG Kaiser); then shipboard medicine, travel, writing and volunteerism in retirement.

I don’t suggest Xenophilia is a commodious disease to live with, or a nice base from which to practice medicine. I do suggest that we each have the choice to live with our afflictions, or to resent them. To love what we are, rather than what we ought and might be. And I confess that I couldn’t imagine a better way to handle my own Xenophilia than as a physician. That fortuitous happenstance has allowed me to live, as my parents did, in a world that is at once one place and every place, and everyone is one person and all people. The longer i live with my affliction, the better it serves me. There is somthing to be said for  longevity   when one’s  worst afflictions  are xenophilia and  ologophilia.

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