Part I: Pre-China Endeavors and Accomplishments
Dr. Norman Bethune went to China in 1938 to offer support to a peasant army combatting Japanese aggression then died less than two years later. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his death in China. To this day Bethune, Báiqiú’ēn (白求恩), is still viewed a hero in China. Sadly, however, he remains mostly unknown in Canada, a state of affairs I’d like to change.
In my last blog post, I introduced Dr. Bethune. I shared how the courageous example he provided helped me to heal from a serious accident in China. I also wrote about fate and destiny. In this blog I wish to: 1. share more of my personal connection, 2. explore how the concepts of fate and destiny apply to him, 3. provide information about his Pre-China Endeavors and Accomplishments, which led him to the final chapter of his life.
In a later post (Part II), I’ll write about Dr. Bethune’s accomplishments in China and his legacy which still inspires millions today. I might also share recent “fateful” events in my own life which will soon see me retracing the footsteps of Dr. Bethune in China and fulfilling the destiny I’ve been co-creating since my near death in China 9 1/2 years ago.
My Personal Connection with Norman Bethune
My personal connection with Dr. Bethune started in December 2004 while I was working in China. With Christmas coming and being thousands of miles from my family, I was overwhelmed with loneliness. Exhausted too, I needed a holiday. I was preparing a lesson for my Harbin Institute of Technology masters students. (HIT is the equivalent of the USA’s MIT.) “Heroes” was to be the topic. I wanted to tell them about Terry Fox and hear what they knew about Dr. Bethune. Not knowing a lot about Bethune myself at the time, I went online to research. One line that I came across—simple and unforgettable—brought me to tears. The experience was one of identification in which I met the spirit of Dr. Bethune, which is still very much alive in China.
Bethune, far from home and working extremely hard in a vast rugged area of China, wrote to friends in Canada, “It is true I am tired, but I don’t think I have been so happy for a long time…I am needed” (August 21, 1938). Like me, Dr. Bethune felt appreciated and validated in China in a personally unprecedented way.
Dr. Bethune and I had a few other things in common besides Canadian citizenship and personal validation. China changed Bethune, and China changed me too; both of us were teachers who felt called to China (Bethune trained Chinese to be doctors and nurses and I taught English); and for both of us, our time in China was cut short. For Bethune it was a fatal blood infection; for me it was a near fatal car accident.
I entitled my last blog posting Near Death in China, Fate or Destiny? The reference was to myself. If I dropped the “near,” the question could refer to Dr. Norman Bethune. Was his death in China fate or was it destiny? Was it a combination, with his using fate to create a destiny? I am inclined to believe the latter. What is fate, anyway? What is destiny? I’ll start with an analogy here followed by a bigger introduction to Dr. Bethune.
Fate and destiny have intrigued me for a long time, especially after I miraculously survived a serious accident in China. I’d like to compare the concepts to two physical laws operative in our world. Fate I will compare to gravity and destiny I’ll compare to aerodynamics (flight).
1. Fate and gravity:
I define fate as a neutral and impersonal phenomenon, seemingly foreordained, that involves events or things that we have no conscious control over. These events/things often feel as though they happen “to us.” Humans (at least in the Western world) generally associate fate with unfavorable outcomes. In my view, fate resembles the law of gravity and there are roughly two categories, the “natural” and the “human-made.” The natural includes hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.
“Human-made fate” involves the consequences of unconscious programming that’s often activated by our undeveloped egos. Look at the problems galore we humans unconsciously create for ourselves. Consider self-sabotaging behaviour (Norman Bethune was no stranger to this), accidents and illnesses. This kind of fate can often be detected by cyclic behaviour and/or outcomes that do not serve the higher good of ourselves or the people around us. For instance: being drawn into similar kinds of abusive relationships, over-spending, chronic debt, being accident prone, etc. There is a quality of inevitability. Consequences seem to be a “given.” There is no arguing with fate.
In order to loosen the grip of human-made fate, we need to engage in serious self-reflection. This kind of fate must be recognized, examined, learned from and healed. Healing is necessary in order to become conscious, emotionally mature individuals.
In order to create a destiny, fate must be used. There’s no other way.
Like fate, gravity “just happens” and it too with a quality of inevitability. It’s a given. Drop something, it will fall. With its heavy, “unconscious” quality, there’s no arguing with gravity. Its force must be recognized and worked with.
2. Destiny and Flight
Destiny is something big, unique and special, something that we choose to create. It is our personal big purpose that if fulfilled will leave the world a better place because we lived in it. I believe also that destiny is co-created with a higher power, whether we want to acknowledge that higher power or not. In my view, things work better when we do. (For an elaboration on co-created destiny, please see my last blog post. Click here.)
Destiny is not a given. It demands consciousness, boldness and perseverance. It demands the willingness to move out of our comfort zone no matter how frightened and resistant we may be. In order to create and work towards fulfilling our grand purpose, we must first learn from fate, particularly the human-made variety. (I recall Ram Dass’s inimitable statement, “Earth’s the ‘stay-after-school and learn-your-lessons’ planet. Are you going to get with the curriculum?”)
Learning our lessons helps us gain the strength and courage to identify and create our destiny, thereby transforming our garbage into gold. (Not easy and it’s worth the effort.) In this way, destiny’s creation is much like the law of aerodynamics.
Human flight (aerodynamics) requires the understanding of and conscious use of gravity. (Gravity is part of a slower, denser order of being and doesn’t need to know or understand flight to do what it does. The same holds true if we substitute the word fate for gravity and destiny for flight.) Human flight also requires vision, effort and diligence. How else to get an airplane off the ground or a rocket launched? How else, metaphorically speaking, to launch ourselves into the lives our spirits yearn for, that which we were born to be and do, also known as our destiny? (Again, for more in-depth views on fate and destiny, please see my last blog.) Once again, it’s necessary to use fate to create destiny.
Where was Norman Bethune in all this?
Just like the rest of us humans, Bethune was mired in “unconscious stuff.” From my extensive reading, however, I have noticed something key about Bethune during his periods of defeat. The more conscious awareness he was able to bring to his personal failings, the more able he was to use disillusionment as a catalyst to pick himself up and proceed with clearer vision. For instance, after insisting on a radical procedure to treat his tuberculosis, which saved his life, Bethune went on to become a thoracic surgeon.
In January 1938, in response to personal defeat in Spain, Bethune chose to go to China, a nation fighting for its survival against fascist aggression from Japan.
From early in his career as a physician, up to the time of his death in China in November 1939 (less than two years after arriving), “fate” had a special way of dealing with this man’s stubborn, and at the same time fragile, ego. The horrors of World War I as a stretcher bearer, his own personal struggles with tuberculosis, and his tireless efforts in doing blood transfusions at the front during the Spanish Civil War (Spain was a “scar on his heart”) had all had their effect at chipping away his ego. It was in China, though, that his unconscious ego was cracked open as he literally worked himself to death and into the ranks of legend.
Norman Bethune—Destiny in His Bones
March 4, 1890, Gravenhurst, Ontario – November 12, 1939, Hebei Province, China
From childhood, Norman Bethune believed in his bones he was destined to change the world. He was born in Victorian times to religiously zealous parents, a missionary mother and a Presbyterian preacher father, extremely formative figures in his turbulent and troubled life. Indeed, Bethune spent his entire life rebelling against them and, by extension, against everything else he deemed as inflexible, sanctimonious and/or oppressive. In his contrariness, Bethune proved just like his parents in many ways. Like them, he had to be “right”; he had to dominate, and he had to preach (though he chose not Christianity).
With blatant personal problems, most likely beyond his ability to control, Bethune sabotaged himself. Was this his fate, unconsciously self-generated? I think so. Historian and biographer Roderick Stewart in his book Phoenix, the Life of Norman Bethune suggests that Bethune may have suffered from a mental health illness not understood in his day. (Bi-polar disorder?) In any case, in North America and Europe, Bethune’s controversial and often offensive behavior, including his compulsive need to jolt the status quo, led to his unpopularity in professional circles and to lack of acknowledgement for his many achievements, in both the West and especially in China. His communist involvement, towards the end of his life, likely did not help matters either.
Norman Bethune, Pre-China Endeavors and Accomplishments
Many books have been written about Norman Bethune. (I have read several of them.) I have selected only a few (eight) highlights of his life to share here. Each reveals one more stage of Bethune’s “long preparation” leading to “the final period–his life and work in China” (Henning Sorenson, see above Spanish Civil War photo). For those wanting more, I recommend Roderick and Sharon Stewart’s exceptional non-biased, thoroughly engaging biography, Phoenix, the Life of Norman Bethune. I also found great value in the writings of Dr. Bethune himself in a book edited and introduced by Larry Hannant, The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art. (I reached out to Roderick and Sharon Stewart and Larry Hannant in my research on Bethune. I very much appreciate their generous support.) Adrienne Clarkson’s lively and enthusiastic biography, Extraordinary Canadians: Norman Bethune, makes for a good introduction and a much quicker read. Ms. Clarkson has a slight “bias,” which I enjoyed. And, it is understandable, given her Chinese ancestry.
1. During World War I, Bethune served as a stretcher-bearer in the hell-hole known as “No Man’s Land,” the death zone between German and Allied trenches. Exposing himself to great risk, Bethune ended up having to be carried out himself when shrapnel ripped through his left leg.
Here in Belgium, Bethune realized first-hand the critical need to move medical units closer to the front in order to save innumerable lives otherwise lost. The experience affected his choice of involvement in the Spanish Civil War and later in China, where Bethune was the first to institute the practice of retrieving wounded soldiers from an active battlefield.
2. Early in his career and at the urging of his social conscience (undoubtedly acquired from his parents), Dr. Bethune ‘s mission was to eradicate preventable illness. His remarkable survival from tuberculosis (the “White Plague”), the most prevalent disease of his day, fed this passion and prompted him to retrain as a thoracic surgeon.
During this period of his career, he was able to put his creative and pre-eminently practical skills to work. He both invented and improved upon instruments designed for thoracic (chest) surgery. Later in China, he used this same kind of innovative ingenuity to modify available materials to serve other pressing needs.
3. As a practicing physician in both the USA and Canada during the Depression, Bethune decried the lack of support for those who suffered the most. He saw how the social conditions of poverty made tuberculosis epidemic.
Bethune unsuccessfully appealed to and then rebelled against the Establishment in his passionate advocacy for universal health care. This was 30 years before medicare became a fact in Canada. By challenging (bucking) the status quo, it’s easy to see how Dr. Bethune made enemies galore in both medical and political circles.
4. Bethune opened a free medical clinic in Montreal for the poor. (He also started a free Children’s Creative Art Centre for disadvantaged children.)
5. In the mid-late 1930’s, Bethune denounced Western political complacency in the face of fascist aggression in Spain, Hitler and Mussolini’s practice ground before World War II was actually declared three years later. Thoroughly disillusioned with Western tacit support for fascism (what he saw as the turning of a blind eye to it), Bethune made the pragmatic decision to join the communist party, the only organization he felt was serious in combating fascism.
6. Zealous to save the world from fascism and its being a cause big enough to utilize his prodigious talent and power-house energy, Bethune went to Spain in 1937. He’d survived the “White Plague” of TB; now he was taking on what he called the “Black Death of modern times,” fascism. In Spain he advanced the already existing, though virtually dysfunctional, mobile blood transfusion service by creating and leading a Canadian unit, which took blood right to the front lines of battle. With an audacious spirit, he saved many lives and developed his expertise in battlefield medicine. He also indulged in self-sabotaging ways, which alienated him from the very people whose respect and support he valued most. He was told to leave Spain.
7. A medical warrior and impassioned propagandist against fascism (he held no punches), Bethune returned to Canada and went on a trans-continental speaking tour to raise funds for Spain. He proved a passionate, powerful orator who drew crowds of thousands to hear him speak.
8. Eager to make a difference and disillusioned with the medical establishment in Canada and the USA (where he’d already burned his bridges anyway), Bethune turned his sights on a war unfolding in Asia. On January 8, 1938, under the auspices of the China Aid Council, Bethune set sail across the Pacific to devote all his heart, soul and physical strength to saving China from the enemy he hated most of all, fascism.
In a new but ancient land, Bethune still struggled against his demons. There was, however, no unnecessary need to struggle on the outside. The uncomplaining example set by the quietly brave soldiers and civilians he worked with helped Bethune re-align with his highest ideals. He gave the best he had to give to China.
Here is a video that provides a good overview of Bethune’s life, with commentary and photographs. There are some inaccuracies and it is biased. It is still worth seeing. The enthusiasm of the young man who created the video is refreshing.
Overview of Bethune’s Life
For an account of Bethune’s “fateful” and heroic final chapter in China, please stay tuned to my next blog, “Dr. Norman Bethune, China’s Canadian Hero, Fate or Destiny? Part II.”