Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Moving Beyond Checkmate

It was 60 years ago this month that I learned how to play chess.  Although chess has brought me some enjoyment over the years, the process of learning the game brought me some much more important life lessons.  

As the 1954 December holidays approached, the demand for the new board game “Scrabble” was exceeding supply so, when my last-minute-shopper parents got to the local department store on December 24th, none were to be found.  Looking around at the mostly empty shelves in hopes of finding an overlooked “Scrabble” game, my mother noticed a few chess sets.  On the boxes was the inscription “Chess, the Game of Kings.”  My mom thought “If it’s good enough for kings, it should be good enough for my children.”  

Neither of my parents had ever played chess so on that night before Christmas while the rest of the family was nestled snugly in bed, my mother read the rules and taught herself to play chess.  The next day when the hubbub of present opening was over and the dinner dishes had been washed and put away, my mom took my two older brothers and me aside and taught us how to play chess.  

My brothers learned the game very quickly and soon were teaching their friends how to play.  For the next couple of weeks we had a steady stream of neighborhood kids coming over to play chess.  Because of the fun they were having, many of the kids used their Christmas money to purchase chess sets while their new “Scrabble” games sat idle – at least for a while.

I learned a bit more slowly but within a week I had mastered the basic concepts of the game.  When I was finally able to call “checkmate” on my mom, she smiled and said that I was now good enough to play with the older kids and teach the younger siblings how to play when they were ready – which I dutifully did.

Over the next 51 years of her life, I never saw my mother play another game of chess.  I suspect that once she was confident that all of her children would learn how to play chess she felt it more important to move on to teaching them other things.  

About the same time that my mother was teaching me to play chess, Geoffrey Vickers was educating people about public health’s role in the “continuous redefining of the unacceptable.”  I frequently use that definition when I talk about public health.  While that definition highlights the importance of focusing on the problems we face in our society, I now realize that it provides a one-sided view of public health and its goal to protect and improve the health of all people.  As I look back to Christmas 1954, it’s evident that my mother was giving me a perspective that could balance and complement that of Vickers.  Although she was focusing on a relatively small population (her family), she knew what they needed to optimally grow and prosper.  In addition to addressing deficits, she was modeling another necessary component of the definition of public health as the “continuous redefining of the opportunities.” 

Public health needs to function as the conscience of our health system by continuously defining what’s unacceptable.  Public health also needs to lead the way to eliminating those unacceptable conditions/situations.  But of equal (if not greater) importance is the need for public health to identify the opportunities for all of us, as a society, to optimally grow and prosper.  Geoffrey Vickers and my mother helped me see and understand that continuum. Together they taught that once we checkmate today’s public health problems, we need move on to the next challenge and opportunity.  

Ed