(traveling together in Bangkok, Thailand, 2012)
My father, Ulrich B. Jacobsohn, M.D., passed away last week. He was a brilliant psychiatrist, my hero and my inspiration to be a timebanker. Through his stories, I learned about the world. He loved this country, arriving in 1948 from Bangkok, Thailand. How he got to Bangkok after being born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928 is a fascinating tale of luck and valor that I am putting to paper as I stop to write this blog. I see it as ideas branching out from the tree of his life. Family is everything if you see everyone as family; that is what my father did, and it is his legacy to me.
The Japanese invaded and occupied Thailand the day after Pearl Harbor, but no one paid much attention to that in America. My father, thirteen years old, later watched the bombs fall on Bangkok that disrupted the Japanese use of Thai resources and he applauded, though in fear for his life. He revered the Americans, learning American songs on the radio and reading books about America. Someday he would live there as an American, but it took many years to be accepted, being “half-Jewish” (whatever that means!) and of German (Nazi!?) heritage. Finding community was a constant journey for him.
He wasn’t just born with a helping gene (though he was a 7th generation physician); he learned at an early age the value of community, having gained and lost it several times. He considered kindness to be second nature and a critical element of survival. The other critical element is wisdom, and he passed a lot of his on to me. The wisdom was, intend kindness. It is good.
His experience living in Thailand, where he was treated with kindness and respect during his formative years, carried on as a theme in his life. He loved the Thai people, always smiling, always helpful.
As a child, I think he recognized his purpose as a healer, that he could take what he knew about human nature and somehow help the situation—lord knows, there was a great need for healing and kindness everywhere, just as there is now. As a medical student, he became fascinated with the diagnosis and treatment for psychic wounds in veterans, or what we now call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He understood it because he had the same symptoms. In healing them, he healed himself. I traveled with him in 2010 back to Germany, where he visited the concentration camp he would have been sent to if caught in 1933. He contemplated his fate in front of the gallows, finding a measure of peace.
My father was known for being kind to everybody, especially his patients. It always began with respect, not pity. He never lied to them, and made it a point to tell me that several times. He looked for the good in people, even murderers, but not in naivety. When we spoke about timebanking, I mentioned once that everyone needs to be needed and feel useful to others. He agreed, noting that even hardened criminals that he visited in prison were eager to help others in some way. It is human instinct to want to connect. He found a way to connect with everyone, sometimes merely sitting in silence with a patient on a bench in the sunshine, wordlessly offering them an apple to munch on. How refreshing not to be asked, “And how do you feel about that? or “Are your meds working for you?”
My dad took every opportunity for growth in the profession of psychiatry, not for money, but to put himself in a place to make system changes.
Serving as a staff psychiatrist for Camarillo State Hospital (“Hotel California”), he asked a nurse why patients were getting cold showers. Her answer was, “That’s how we’ve always done it. I’ve been here for thirty years.” He knelt down in his 3-piece suit and found that the hot water valve was never connected; just one small part was missing. He called the maintenance department, and patients had hot showers again.
People can become numb to the most egregious things and forget what their values are. It takes a leader like him to hold the space for kindness. He held his staff to higher values, never punishing them for speaking out as a whistleblower, always encouraging them to continue to learn. He approached life as a student with simple kindness and respect as his beacons. He infected everyone he met with kindness. I mean to do the same.
One snowy day in 2013, he had a severe stroke, alone in his cottage in an assisted living community. His expensive “Life Alert” pendant lay in another room after he forgot to put it on. His phone was on the side of the stroke; even if he had the logical thought to use it, he was unable to reach it. The convenient pull cord above his bed lay still, unused, for hours.
Because he was loved, he was saved. His neighbor across the street looked out for him, and noticed that his newspaper lay unclaimed in his front doorjamb. Concerned, she called the front desk and asked them to check on “Dr. J.” She was modest when I thanked her for saving my father’s life. They were friends. She cared about him. But would she have done such a thing if he was always a jerk to her? Would she have watched his house so closely? I think not.
That is the power of peaceful neighbors. The power of violent neighbors is also quite evident; just look at the judgements every day made about neighbors in poverty, or people of a different color or ability. The rise of nationalism, racism, fascism, unbridled capitalism—and all violent intent aimed at hurting others, threatens our very existence. What could possibly be worth killing each other to preserve it? It is not enough to want peace wistfully; one must actually value it as if one’s life depended on it. It does.
We have to do something to promote good will in this country and the world, if peace stands a chance in the swirl of war. I don’t mean just war in the Middle East. I mean war against our neighbors, just as it began in Germany, by asking this senseless, useless question: “Who is to blame for our troubles?” That is where it begins, when we think of our neighbors as the other, and not family.
Inequality does not have to be reality. To be peaceful, the economy has to work for everyone. We invented money; it is a social construct. We must remember the shortcomings of our money system, especially its basis in short-term, violent perspectives. I am looking to the long-term prospect of living with each other in peace. When timebankers say some things are not about money, we mean money the way it stands now. It could change, if we socially constructed it.
Joining the Timebanking Movement is a path to peace and kindness, a tool to tangibly value all the things that aren’t about money: acceptance, community, kindness, trust, and mutual aid. Timebanks weave the fabric of a peaceful world. It can, and must, be our intention to hold some things dear and, if not a full transformation of our money system, to build a duel system to measure and promote the things we truly value.
One beautiful night in 2010, a friend and I had supper with my father and Edgar Cahn, the “Father of Timebanking.” The two fathers had much in common, discussing the 60’s, the War on Poverty, the De-institutionalization of struggling souls living in facilities, the lessons learned of political expedience, of walking the talk and Co-Option. It was fascinating, and I will always treasure the memory of that meal, though I can’t recall what I ate.
I hold the memory of my father’s life, and his bottomless kindness. I am connected to him, but I don’t do my work to make him proud. I do it because I agree that kindness is beautiful, because I yearn for connection, because kindness spirals and it pleases me to help it do that. I am thankful for the place I find myself in, a place where I belong, immersed in the Timebanking Movement. Thank you, Dad, for leading me here. You treated us all like family.
You can read more about my father’s extraordinary life HERE.
Stacey Jacobsohn is the Founder and Executive Director of Time Initiative of Maine (T.I.ME).