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“Inevitably, an individual is measured by his or her largest concerns.” — from Human Options, by Norman Cousins
The lifelong concerns of Norman Cousins—writer, editor, citizen diplomat, promoter of holistic healing, and unflagging optimist—were large indeed: world peace, world governance, justice, human freedom, the human impact on the environment, and health and wholeness. During a lifetime which spanned most of the twentieth century, these central concerns of Cousins’s life were also among the most important issues facing the human race. His primary platform for promoting his views was as editor of Saturday Review for the better part of forty years. He was also the author of a dozen books and hundreds of essays and editorials. Besides having been notably active in a variety of peace organizations, he was, in his in later years, on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine.
Though not a member of any Unitarian congregation, Cousins did at times attend services at the Unitarian Church in Westport, and he donated the pulpit of that church “in memory of Albert Schweitzer.” Cousins had written two books about Schweitzer and had spent time with him at his hospital in Lambarene. In conversation with the current minister of the Westport congregation, Rev. Frank Hall, Cousins said that for him “the pulpit represented the importance of the spoken word, and the ongoing search for truth and justice.”
Norman Cousins was born in Union Hill, New Jersey, on June 24, 1915. Growing up, he was both a fine athlete and a fine writer. He graduated from Columbia University Teachers College in 1933 and began his career as writer and editor with brief stints at the New York Evening Post and Current History. In 1940 he became executive editor of the Saturday Review of Literature (later Saturday Review), becoming editor just two years later at the age of twenty-seven. In the course of his tenure Saturday Review grew from a small and struggling literary magazine to a weekly forum of ideas with a circulation of over 600,000.
At Saturday Review, Cousins not only spoke his own mind as editor, he also encouraged other writers and critics in a collective effort, “not just to appraise literature, but to try to serve it, nurture it, safeguard it.” Cousins believed, “There is a need for writers who can restore to writing its powerful tradition of leadership in crisis.”
During his almost four decades with the magazine he came to feel that his readers were a second family: “Nothing in my life, next to my family, has meant more to me than the Saturday Review,” he once said. “To work with books and ideas, to see the interplay between a nation’s culture and its needs, to have unfettered access to an editorial page which offered, quite literally, as much freedom as I was capable of absorbing—this is a generous portion for anyone.” Cousins used that editorial freedom to speak his mind on a wide variety of the issues of the day, none more important to him than issues of war and peace.
During World War II Cousins was a member of the editorial board for the Overseas Bureau of the Office of War Information and was cochairman of the 1943 Victory Book Campaign. He also came to believe that enduring world peace could only be achieved through effective world governance. The use of atomic weapons to end the war further galvanized his thinking and writing. In Saturday Review, Cousins affirmed that “The need for world government was clear before August 6, 1945, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki raise that need to such dimensions that it can no longer be ignored.” His editorial “Modern Man is Obsolete,” exploring the implications of the atomic age was widely quoted and in its expanded book form was briefly on the bestseller list. When the United World Federalists was founded in 1947 Cousins served as one of its vice presidents and later as president. To generate support for world government he made more than 2,000 speeches both in the United States and around the world.
In Who Speaks for Man?, published in 1953 following extensive travels in Europe and Asia, Cousins expanded his arguments for world federalism and for a world no longer based on the supremacy of nationalism and other superficial differences: “The new education must be less concerned with sophistication than compassion. It must recognize the hazards of tribalism. It must teach man the most difficult lesson of all—to look at someone anywhere in the world and be able to see the image of himself. The old emphasis upon superficial differences that separate peoples must give way to education for citizenship in the human community. “With such an education and with such self-understanding, it is possible that some nation or people may come forward with the vital inspiration that men need no less than food. Leadership on this higher level does not require mountains of gold or thundering propaganda. It is concerned with human destiny. Human destiny is the issue. People will respond.” He concluded the book with this hopeful affirmation: “War is an invention of the human mind. The human mind can invent peace with justice.”
Cousins’s concern for peace and human well-being was more than an abstract idea. His concern, for example, for the victims of Hiroshima, following a postwar visit to that devastated city, became quite personal. He arranged, with funding from Saturday Review readers, for medical treatment in the United States for twenty-four young Japanese women who came to be known as the “Hiroshima Maidens.” Saturday Review readers also supported the medical care of 400 Japanese children orphaned by the atomic bomb. In the 1950s Cousins and his wife legally adopted one of the “Maidens.” A few years later, again with the support of Saturday Review readers, Cousins helped create a program for the “Ravensbrueck Lapins,” thirty-five Polish women who had been victims of Nazi medical experiments during the war.
During the 1950s Cousins was outspoken in his criticism of atmospheric nuclear testing. In 1957 he was among the founders and became the first cochairman of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). In the early 1960s he became an unofficial citizen diplomat, facilitating communication between the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the White House which helped to lead to the Soviet-American nuclear test ban treaty. Upon ratification of the treaty in 1963, President Kennedy publicly thanked Cousins for his help with the treaty, and Pope John XXIII awarded Cousins his personal medallion. Cousins was also the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award in 1963, the Family of Man Award in 1968, and the United Nations Peace Medal in 1971.
During the sixties and seventies Cousins was a leading voice among those opposed to the American role in Vietnam; he continued to oppose the nuclear arms race, and he continued to argue for a strengthened United Nations leading to world government. As he wrote: “The essential lesson most people still resist is that they are members of one species. It is this that we all share—the emergence of a common destiny and the beginning of the perception, however misty, that something beyond the nation will have to be brought into being if the human race is to have any meaning.” Cousins believed that this was both essential and possible. He affirmed over and over again with typical optimistic spirit that human beings could do better, be better, and create better societies.
And he believed that the path to a better world began with the individual. In a democratic society it is, he affirmed, ultimately the individual who makes a difference: “freedom’s main problem is the problem of the individual who takes himself lightly historically.”
One of Cousins’s own great strengths was that he did not take himself lightly historically. He believed in the power of the written and spoken word to make a difference in the world. His commitment to Saturday Review was rooted in this belief. As he wrote in The Healing Heart, “The description of the Saturday Review that pleased me most during the years of my editorship was that it never tried to gloss over the seriousness of the issues it discussed but that at the same time it never wavered in its belief that solutions were within reach.” This was true whether he and the magazine were taking on global issues of war and peace, justice, and the environment, or national issues such as the dangers of cigarette advertising or violence in the media.
In addition to his writing, public speaking, and service with a variety of organizations, Cousins consistently made an effort as editor of Saturday Review to experience events in the making. He believed that the editorial page should be an “encounter with the present.” In this spirit he observed an atomic test at Bikini, visited postwar Germany, reported from a plane during the Berlin airlift, traveled to disputed Kashmir in 1954, to the Gaza Strip in 1956, and to war torn Laos in 1961. Following a visit to the Soviet Union in 1960, he initiated a series of cultural exchanges between Americans and Russians from many fields of endeavor that became known as the Dartmouth Conferences. And over the years he met and often became friends with a wide variety of some of the preeminent figures of the mid-twentieth century from many fields, among them Pablo Casals, Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, Adlai Stevenson, Albert Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, Pope John XXIII, U Thant, Jawaharlal Nehru, Helen Keller, and most of the U.S. presidents beginning with FDR.
In the 1960s Cousins had an experience that changed his life and that, at the same time, reinforced some of his deepest convictions concerning the nature of the human being. Stricken with a crippling and life-threatening collagen disease, Cousins followed a regimen of high doses of vitamin C and of positive emotions (including daily doses of belly laughter), all in consultation and partnership with his sometimes skeptical physicians. He chronicled his recovery in the best-selling Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, published in 1979. In the book, generalizing from his own experience and research, he affirmed that “the life force may be the least understood force on earth” and that “human beings are not locked into fixed limitations. The quest for perfectibility is not a presumption or a blasphemy but the highest manifestation of a great design.”
When Cousins had a heart attack fifteen years following his earlier illness, he wondered whether it would be possible to recover from two life-threatening conditions in one lifetime, but he was determined that he would. As he was brought into the hospital on a stretcher following the attack, he sat up and said, “Gentlemen, I want you to know that you’re looking at the darnedest healing machine that’s ever been wheeled into this hospital.” Once again Cousins recovered, and once again he chronicled his experience in a book, The Healing Heart: Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness. And once again he generalized from his experience with life-threatening illness to the experience of life threatened humanity. He was struck by the irony that all of his books on the ills of nations did not have the total readership of his one book describing his personal experience of disease and recovery, Anatomy of an Illness. Yet his concern, as he wrote in The Healing Heart, was “that everyone’s health—including that of the next generation—may depend more on the health of society and the healing of nations than on the conquest of disease.” He concluded the book with a call to conquer war, affirming that “the health and well-being not just of Americans but of the human race are incompatible with war and preparations for war.”
The last years of Cousins’ life, following his retirement from Saturday Review in 1978, were spent as a faculty member of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine. There he taught ethics and medical literature and continued his research into the relationship of attitude and health; yet he never lost sight of the larger goals of global peace and justice. Just as belief is, Cousins affirmed, an integral ingredient in personal healing, so did he affirm that belief was integral to global healing. And in all this, he believed that communication was also essential: “The starting point for a better world is the belief that it is possible. Civilization begins in the imagination. The wild dream is the first step to reality. Visions and ideas are potent only when they are shared. Until then, they are merely a form of daydreaming.”
During the last year of his life, Cousins received additional awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and the Japan Niwano Peace Prize.
Norman Cousins died on November 30, 1990, following cardiac arrest, and having lived years longer than doctors more than once had predicted: ten years after his first heart attack, sixteen years after his collagen illness, and twenty-six years after his doctors first diagnosed heart disease.
In American National Biography, Cousins’s life is summarized in the following words:
“In June 1983 Cousins told the graduating class of Harvard Medical School that the “conquest of war and the pursuit of social justice… must become our grand preoccupation and magnificent obsession.” These certainly were the concerns that obsessed him throughout his life, and over the years he battled through his writings and actions to make them matters of more general concern. Driven by the shock and portent of Hiroshima, he worked to combat unchecked nationalism, promote federalism, and build a sense of world citizenship, in the belief that people as a whole might yet construct a new world order of peace and justice. His optimism, intellectual curiosity, and commitment to the preservation of human life were equally unquenchable.”
Cousins’s own words, from his 1980 book Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook, perhaps best capture how he strived to live his life:
“I can imagine no greater satisfaction for a person, in looking back on his life and work, than to have been able to give some people, however few, a feeling of genuine pride in belonging to the human species and, beyond that, a zestful yen to justify that pride.”
— By Ken Read-Brown, Minister of Old Ship Church, Hingham, Massachusetts.