QUAKER CARES AND CONCERNS:
WILLIAM DOLPHIN in conversation with Judith Favor
As we settled into expectant silence, I noticed attentiveness written into the muscles of Williamʼs body. Cyclist, writer and teacher, his ineffable sense of alignment with Spirit was palpable to me, but hard to name. Words came later. William Dolphinʼs presence reminds me of William Wordsworthʼs definition of Light, “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.”
Tell us about some of the cares and concerns you have carried throughout your life as a Friend.
Oh boy. This phrase, ‘cares and concerns,ʼ strikes a deep chord in me. From a young age, certainly by the time I was ten years old, my place in the world, my responsibilities and the degree to which I was meeting them, became real concerns. I grew up in an emotionally reserved family with academic parents who valued service but showed few feelings. I had neighborhood friends as a child, but our yearly summer routine created challenges for developing normal childhood friendships. Every summer from ages one to 15, my parents took me and my younger sister to southern Indiana where they ran a camp for kids with physical disabilities. The campers would come and go, but we stayed all summer. No radio, no television, roaming the woods. Naptime was mandatory for campers and my sister and I, but when I was about eight or nine, my mother said I could read instead. The camp library was limited, but I started with the Hardy Boys mysteries and then moved on to the science fiction classics of Asimov and Heinlein. The reading began as boredom, but I soon got very caught up in the storytelling and the transport to other worlds. I quickly became a voracious reader, consuming a book a day for the next many years.
As my tastes matured, I came to appreciate the achievement of literary writers and started writing poetry and short stories, but literature seemed elusive and out of reach. Art was not something that particularly appealed to my parents. They’re both readers but more pragmatic ones. When I shared with them the writing I was doing, they seemed confused by it. I recall my mother saying after reading one story that she didn’t understand it, so it must be good. I asked myself: who am I in relationship to their values? As much as I cared about books and writing, I never considered being a writer as a profession. It wasn’t a practical way to make a living.
Reading may not have given me career ideas, but it did give me a distorted sense of the importance of heroic action — some version of the Great Man Theory of history. The idea that the trajectory of the world is set by the efforts of a few extraordinary people fit all too well a naïve view of my family history in which everything worth doing seemed to have already been done. Since some of that history stretches to the 11th century, and the American part goes 14 generations from the Mayflower to settling New Hampshire and a winter at Valley Forge, I wasn’t wrong. More immediately, my parents and grandparents were serious people of diverse accomplishment — educated white-collar on mom’s side, self-made blue-collar on dad’s – all with unimpeachable integrity. And dad’s life story was made for Hallmark. Champion wrestler, almost killed by polio at 19, left paralyzed in both arms and told his life was over but persevered to have a family and become a college president and small-town mayor. How could I measure up to any of them, much less all of them?
How did you wrestle with these expectations?
“I became focused on finding ways to accomplish something exceptional, but that backfired early and spectacularly. Fifth grade, to be exact. It was my first book report, and I took it a little too seriously. My reading habit meant I spent a lot of time in the public library, so when I got this assignment, I went wandering the stacks looking for a worthy subject. I ended up in the philosophy section, probably because I had some sense that it occupied the top spot in the intellectual hierarchy of academia. Sickness Unto Death jumped out at me simply for the title, then I found out Soren Kierkegaard was a religious philosopher, which connected him to my cousin, Rufus Jones, and the fact that he wrote all his books anonymously astonished me. Who would risk the penalties of heresy for no glory? Just the sake of ideas? My “book” report ended up more like a ‘Meet Sorenʼ mini-bio, complete with pencil portrait I drew. As best I can recall, my classmates were baffled by the presentation.
Afterward, the teacher took me aside. “Do you know what plagiarism is?” she asked. I didn’t. “You have an older sibling in college who helped you?” I didn’t. “Well, you found this in a book somewhere.” There she had me. Yes, I got my ideas from books. I didn’t know anything about him before I checked out that stack of books. She assured me she wouldn’t tell my parents but wanted me to understand I had done something very bad. I believed her completely, but I had no idea what went wrong.
Suddenly, I was often too “sick” to go to school because of chronic headaches and other maladies, both real and pretended. My perfect school attendance went down to 50%. They tried valium and muscle relaxants, but at 12, that was not a good solution. The doctor hospitalized me for medical tests, including an awful lumbar puncture. After everything came back negative, they sent me to the child psychologist, who determined it seemed to have something to do with school and recommended a change.
The private school was a fresh start, where I turned my attention to science. They let me and a couple of the fifth graders I roped in sign up for the sophomore physics class. We were in so far over our heads, having to learn the math to go with it on our own, but I was proud of the C I earned. Sadly, I had to go back to public schools for junior high. The lack of challenges meant I was a disruptive, back-of-the-class smart-aleck, so they had me do eighth and ninth at once to move me up a grade. That helped keep me occupied, but it also meant more disconnect from the kids my age. At least I felt like I was on a path of achievement, which seemed to be confirmed by standardized testing, but that went sour, too. When I qualified to be a National Merit Scholar with the highest score the school had ever seen, 13th in the state of Ohio, I thought I really had made it. But my mother’s only comment was “Too bad it’s not good enough,” and the school principal refused to recommend me for the award because of my history of troublemaking.
Ouch. Tell us more about that…
“Well, I gave up on academics. I was 15 then. Years later, at the start of what would be years of therapy, I asked my mother about her comment, what she meant and why she said it. She told me she hadn’t meant anything cruel but was just reflecting what she thought it meant for my aspirations, which at the time was studying solid-state physics at CalTech or MIT. She had a point, as language aptitude registered a bit stronger than math, but she also explained that she and my dad shared a Quakerly concern that I not decide I was better than anyone else because of my skills, so they went out of their way to remind me at moments of accomplishment. Unfortunately, that strategy dovetailed too well with my book-report experience, leaving me feeling like an intellectual imposter. That contributed to a very dark time in my teens, and I turned to alcohol with a vengeance. Drank myself into a stupor for a few years, culminating in three car wrecks in blackout during one month. After the third, I realized I risked taking innocent others with me, and I had just enough moral compass left for that to be too much. Went into rehab at age nineteen and lost my old coping mechanisms but had to find basic meaning in something. That’s when I returned to literature, to poetry — my own writing and others – as a way to transform the horrible into something useful or even beautiful.
What did this period of suffering open in you?
A return to roots, I suppose, which turned me toward the political. In 1983, with one year sober, I went with my parents to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for Intermountain Yearly Meeting. I was doing better with a new regimen of physical exercise, and time among Friends fit with my need for purpose. There I met a Salvadoran professor and poet who fled the death squads and had not seen his family for two years. He was at Ghost Ranch under the care of the Quaker- Jesuit underground railroad that smuggled political refugees from Central America into the U.S. because the State Department denied political problems from which anyone would need asylum. At the end of a long heartfelt talk that started with the poetry of Neruda and became the story of his flight, he asked, “So, what do you think of your country’s policies toward my country?”
I had to say I knew nothing about them. It was embarrassing to admit, and I felt a deep shame at the suggestion that what was happening in El Salvador, what had happened to him and his family, was done in my name. This changed how I read the news. I began paying attention to what was going on in Central America, and soon saw stories implicating the CIA’s School of the Americas in atrocities in Guatemala and elsewhere. As a teenager in the 1970s, I had adopted what was then my father’s fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican politics, but now I had reason to question what “governing” meant in practice. I became more and more sensitive to human rights, social justice, and the global scope of my country’s influence, all animated by nagging questions: What else is being hidden? When do I only know part of the story?
Youʼd been through a dark time. What brought you into the Light?
I experienced a conversion of sorts when the Salvadoran poet confronted me, a political awakening. His problems became my responsibility. Our conversation reconnected me spiritually to caring for others. At the same time, I was reconnecting with my physical self as I became a serious athlete. I started cycling as transportation, but my ambitious bent meant I challenged myself to ride farther and farther, and then faster and faster. In the process, it saved me, biochemically. Alcohol cravings disappeared. I suspect that as a younger person I experienced pain – both physical and emotional – more acutely than many do, but endurance sports train you to tolerate suffering. I also found a meditative space in the long hours alone on the road.
I did not attend Meeting during my first marriage because hardcore evangelical Christianity had damaged my wife. She was allergic to religion, but I held to Friends’ values. When describing my ethics and politics, I often concluded with the thumbnail summary: “You know, Quaker.” I began to wonder why, if I identified with Friends, I didn’t hang out with them.
After my marriage ended in 2000, I took myself to Berkeley Meeting. It was so powerful! The physical space reminded me of the Bloomington, Indiana Meeting which my grandparents had founded. I felt such a powerful sense of homecoming that when I stood to introduce myself, I could barely choke it out through the tears.
What led you to stay with Berkeley Meeting?
Well, it’s certainly one of the more entertaining meetings you’ll ever attend! You never knew what was going to happen – profound poetic ministry, spontaneous song, the occasional person off the street who would share visions or voices. I enjoyed that, and I felt a sense of belonging. I was given a role in the Meeting right away, recruited to serve on committees, of course. I served as Berkeley Meeting’s representative to Friends Committee on Legislation-CA, which felt meaningful. Most significantly, we had to decide whether to support proposed legislation to make gay marriage legal in California. All the representatives on the committee were in favor, but several were unsure of the sense of their meetings. Whittier Friends were not ready to offer same-sex marriage under their care. After many tearful testimonials, we appeared to be at an impasse. The clerk gave up and moved to table the issue, but I could not let it go. My emotions were running high because two of my dearest friends could not marry their beloveds. I was sure there was a way forward. I pointed out that we were not being asked to conduct samesex weddings. This was civil legislation that would simply confer the same rights on gay and lesbian people that straight folks already enjoyed, and our position on discrimination could not be more clear. They were separable issues.
Everyone nodded. Affirmation came easily. FCL-CA endorsed Mark Leno’s bill. It didn’t make it through the legislature, but helping bring Friends to unity on right action was a powerful example for me of the rewards of service. And tactful negotiation!”
A powerful example of your care and concern…
Yes, whether despite or because of a life of privilege, I’m present with the pain of injustice daily, and when I hold a big concern I feel compelled to act, to find explanations and solutions. It’s a way of doing something with problems rather than letting them destroy me, as they almost did. By the way, I am now in a serene place with alcohol. Thirty-four years since I was given three years of life expectancy, alcohol use is alien to my identity.
You researched medical cannabis for many years. How did this concern lead you to right action?
My dear friend Fausto, after whom one of my sons is named, was sick with HIV and hepatitis, a bad combination because the drugs that help one hurt the other. He ended up on palliative care, but the opioid pain killers made him feel dead to the world. He confided that a puff on a joint relieved his pain as much as a Percocet, but he was worried about losing his disability if he got caught. I offered to look into it for him, and my research was like peeling back layers of an onion that was both horrible and wonderful. The government warnings of my youth about the dangers of marijuana turned out to be totally wrong. Not only that, but the medical uses were astonishingly broad. It was another moment of revelation. My government lied to us about this, too? Why?
Eager to find out more, I talked my way into doing press relations for the high-profile federal trial of Ed Rosenthal in San Francisco and wrote a public daily trial diary. That experience opened my eyes to how criminal justice actually works, as I saw the prosecutor and judge both use procedural gymnastics to keep the jury from hearing testimony on the full facts. No information was allowed in court about state medical cannabis law, or Oakland’s official city program for distributing it to patients, or how the city had deputized Rosenthal as an officer of the city in an attempt to give him federal immunity. All the jury heard was that he owned a warehouse in which he grew marijuana plants; they convicted Rosenthal on three felony counts. After jurors left the courtroom and discovered the full facts, nine of the twelve publicly recanted in the next 24 hours. They appeared on Dateline and CNN, then sat behind Rosenthal at his sentencing wearing pins that said “Ed is a Hero.” By the end, there were more than 200 media stories about his case, including two editorials from The New York Times, and I was asked to do similar work for a then-new patient advocacy group that is now the leading national organization. Sixteen years later, I still write their monthly newsletters.
You were faithful to a powerful leading, William.
I suppose so. I don’t think about it that way, but I do try to be faithful to the truth and to act with compassion. My advocacy work gave me the opportunity to meet a remarkable range of heroic people who, like my father, just want to live with dignity as comfortably as they can. The writing I’ve done on this topic — articles, lobby sheets, white papers, op-ed pieces, informational pamphlets on using cannabis to treat various conditions — has made a difference for many of them, and over time we’ve changed the conversation. The scare-quotes around “medical” marijuana have disappeared. 46 states now have some sort of medical cannabis law and the first drug derived from the plant has just been approved by the FDA.
That work has yielded other rewards. I met Michelle Newhart because of the Ed Rosenthal case. After contributing to a dozen books together, she is now my wife and co-author. She did the research for the book while completing her PhD, while my work provided the background for the medical science and policy developments. We share a commitment to correcting one of the biggest mistakes of the last century.
What do you sense yourself becoming now?
Hopefully even more of a writer. I enjoy teaching college students, but Michelle and I have plans for articles and have started another book project, the dramatic story of the science side of medical cannabis, written for a general audience. I’ve let go of worrying about Pulitzers and the like, though we both care deeply about doing good work. I’m not sure if it’s humility or a form of confidence, but I no longer feel compelled to be the best ever. Ambition still burns bright, but it’s focused on making a difference in how people understand things, helping others achieve clarity. That said, the early reception for our book has been strong enough that I can’t help but wonder: What’s it going to mean? What comes next? How big can I dream? Is it really okay to care about this?
Has this leading taken you anywhere else?
Teaching is certainly part of it. My parents and sister are educators, as many others in my family have been. My academic work dovetails with Quaker testimonies. I try to convey the respect I feel for each student in my teaching. I try to help them see clearly and be more effective agents of change, to feel their place and power in the world. Distractions and dishonesty can trick us into misperceiving the facts of a matter and the right action we need to take. I’ve always felt teaching to entail a radical obligation, but recently I’ve come to realize my orientation to it is rooted in the way Quakers worship and operate, sometimes explicitly so. When I was in grad school and pondering pedagogy, I latched onto consensus decision making as a task to organize writing. So for 30-odd years, I’ve started my academic writing courses with an extended series of writing exercises that culminate in the students deciding the grading policy for the class.
Worship with Claremont Friends is incredibly powerful for me. Sitting still for an hour is an intensely physical experience. It takes a lot of practice to settle into quiet – decades in my case — but I’ve found remarkable emotional support in it. Worship with Friends is like being held in a cocoon of Light, both calming and energizing. As a boy, I was always tense and on guard, not sure I was loved or lovable. Here I feel loved by the Meeting and have the daily experience of love in my marriage, with my children and among Friends. Claremont Meeting takes children’s religious education seriously, and I want my sons to have Quaker faith and practice as a touchstone, as it has been for me. Hopefully they don’t have to journey quite so far afield to claim its power.