In this conversation of Scrubbing In, a medical podcast powered by SpecialtyCare, Noah discusses the path that led him to become an inspirational author, poet, and philosopher. And like any true philosophical discussion, the conversation moves deeper into the importance of persistence and integrity.
Todd Schlosser: So Noah Ben Shea, I thank you so much for joining us today. Noah Ben Shea, you’ve probably seen before as an author, philosopher, poet, wrote all the Jacob the baker books, correct?
Noah BenShea: Yes. I hope I have … when my son was young and someone asks what his father does. He said, “My father types.” So, I’m the author of 27 books, published in 18 languages. And my mother, who’s now passed away, always reminded me that I should tell people that. So, there you go, mom. I’m thinking about you.
Todd Schlosser: We’ll pay homage to her-
Noah BenShea: Amen
Todd Schlosser: … instruction.
Noah BenShea: Amen. Amen.
Todd Schlosser: Absolutely. So, to that end, I wanted to talk to you a little bit today because it’s rare that we get a chance to talk to a philosopher, or someone who builds themselves as such. There are plenty who claim to be. It’s hard to actually have the credibility to back that up.
Noah BenShea: Well, my experience is people, when they are introduced to me as a philosopher, they’re less interested in the ideas I might have as a philosopher, and more interested in how the hell I make a living as a philosopher. So, that seems to be the question that stumps people.
Todd Schlosser: Well, I’m sure that that is difficult. But the answer would be writing books and writing poetry and …
Noah BenShea: Yeah. Yeah. I used to tell people a long time ago that poets never had to worry about selling out because there was no one buying. And then, when I began writing commentary on scriptural literature, I felt that it was like throwing rose petals over the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. You know? But life had its own circumlocutions route. And My mother, again, to pay homage, used to say that men plan and God laughs,
and if you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah.
Noah BenShea: So, I feel blessed to do what I do. My mission statement is to be a source of strength to others, whatever I can bring to the party. I think this is a very broken world. And I’m just trying to make a few repairs.
Todd Schlosser: Oh. I love that. That’s awesome. Let me ask you this, to that end, since we were talking about what philosophy is and how you go about doing that. So, a philosopher really thinks about thinking and what that is, and the cognitive state in general. How do you get into that? Like is there a mode you go into when you think about that? Do you have to be left alone for …
Noah BenShea: Actually, curiously, the question you might might reverse field. You might ask me how do I get out of it. Because my wife reminds me that, in the morning, when I start talking about something, before she’s had her coffee, she said, “Please Noah, not before coffee, not before a coffee.”
Todd Schlosser: You’re not allowed to work before coffee?
Noah BenShea: No. But I don’t … They once asked Isaac Bashevis Singer about what he called writing. And he said, “I call writing hearing voices.”
And they said, “That’s amazing.” He said, “Maybe, but not so amazing because when I stop writing, I don’t stop hearing voices.” We’re not always aware of what we’re called to do in this lifetime. I feel blessed that I was able to recognize that I was called to do this, if you will, a calling, without sanctifying it, by the time I was about 19 or 20.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah, and that’s when you sort of started this pathway, right? I mean, you’ve … I remember looking at your sort of resume that we have here are around … because we like to show off that we work with you because your name is respected. And I remember looking through that and thinking that you had a very … like, it almost seemed like, from age 19, you either knew what you wanted to do or you lucked into just finding the path to what you ended up doing, because it seems like you were just set on that track. So, was it a decision early on to do philosophy?
Noah BenShea: Well, There’s a line I’d seen recently that somebody wrote that luck is the progeny of persistence. This is something I knew I wanted to do early on. Doing well academically, intellectually, was also my rocket ship out of a blue collar background. I was the first person in my family that graduated from high school, let alone university.
Todd Schlosser: Oh Wow.
Noah BenShea: And then, I was like the Valedictorian of my class at UCLA and I was invited to come back. I was a dean when I was 22. And I had my first book of poetry out when I was 24. And I was confused about what I was going to do again by the time I was 30. I mean, I felt like people said very nice things about me. But I wasn’t sure that I was as wise as people were suggesting. And so, sometimes it’s necessary to step back from your life in order to have a closer perspective.
When you see Matisse’s, which were the water lilies that … the famous painting, you can’t … He could not have stood next to it and painted it. He really has to step back 20 or 30 feet. Well, he wasn’t working with a 30 foot brush. But sometimes in life, you have to step back from your life in order to have a more intimate view.
Todd Schlosser: That’s interesting, because when I was late teens, early twenties, I thought I knew everything. And it wasn’t til I hit late twenties, early thirties, when I realized I knew nothing.
Noah BenShea: Well my line of late is that I’m no longer young enough to know everything.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. But I do feel like … And maybe there are just phases to life, but I feel like I clearly transitioned out of that in my early 30s.
Noah BenShea: I don’t think there maybe is phases. There are phases in our life. I don’t think though that getting older makes you wise anymore than getting sick makes you a saint. If getting older made you wise, then the cemeteries would be the culture of all intellect. I think that time, like almost any other major portal that you pass through, is more revealing than transforming. So, sometimes it takes us a while to realize to have a perspective on herself. Kierkegaard said, “Life is lived forwards and understood backwards.” And I think there’s a truth to that for sure. But I’m …
Without doubt, we all have our … We’re small bugs crawling around into our caterpillar self, into cocoons, to emerge a butterfly, only to be reminded of the Chinese wizard who asked, “Am I Lung Chu dreaming I’m a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I am Lung Chu?” So, I’m somewhere in the mix of all there, and if that’s not too much of a mixed metaphor and me going on too long.
Todd Schlosser: Mixed metaphors and mixed cultures in that.
Noah BenShea: I welcome. I like doing that. And I appreciate you listening. Many years ago, I remember, my father, we would go out for Chinese food on Sunday night. And my father, I remember one time, was telling the waiter, “We want this and this and this.” And he’s telling, the waiter keeps nodding and nodding and nodding. My father asked him, “Aren’t you going to write this down?” Like I might’ve asked you, “Are you going to write this down?”
And the waiter looked at my father and said, “Why? Are you going to forget it?” You know? So, the question in our life is not what others forget. It’s what we forget or what we are better served to forget.
Todd Schlosser: I have found that I’m even in same meetings with people that I don’t like to take notes, I like to actually actively listen. And if I’m taking notes, it’s hard for me too … If I’m writing the words they’re saying, I don’t then critically think about what they’re saying. I’m just like a tape recorder for that meeting. And I don’t want to be that. I want to be present for that. So, I am able to then really have a conversation. And then afterwards I’ll take the notes.
Noah BenShea: Well, I’m hoping, because I’ve given a long time of thought, to some of the things I’m saying with some alacrity here, that people who are inclined to, or who are watching or listening to this, will be able to stop and roll back and listen and play it back for themselves, if there’s something that they want to hear that might be an ally to them.
Todd Schlosser: Absolutely. Now, I wanted to take a few of the things that I’ve heard you say a few times that I like and have sort of hit me in a way. But let’s take the first one, the “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” which …
And you’re very good at this, not to give you a compliment, but you are very good at saying things in a very simple way that can have either layered meanings or does the very deep meaning. So, let’s take that one at first.
Noah BenShea: I was a visiting professor of philosophy at UC San Francisco Medical School, and there was a very wise professor up there was also … And it was a dean actually, one of the deans of school, of palliative medicine, who would remind …
‘Cause UC San Francisco Med School is one of the top medical schools in the country. And he would remind these brightest of students that, “Do not be confused. No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” He also said that he would remind them when you’re coming in to pay attention to a patient, as that’s why I was there to help high level, very, very bright students transform into caring people, as that’s as an essential part of healing is any part of a lot of medical training, he would remind them, he said when they walk in to see a patient, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” You know?
And that’s a great reminder about how physical presence, caring presence, to people who are going through tough times, is more important than how we might counsel them or anything we might want to impart to them. There’s a great wisdom in just being in the company and the presence of people quietly.
Todd Schlosser: And just sitting with them.
Noah BenShea: Quietly.
Todd Schlosser: And I’ll share this little anecdote from my life. I have seen many doctors throughout my life. And I have never once remembered what they said. I always remember how I felt in their presence, and you know, just the vibe I got from them. So, bedside manner is sort of what that professor at-
Noah BenShea: Yeah, he was reminding them. But I think anything that’s true in one metaphor is true in another metaphor. So, if you’re going to … If you’re a bright young physician, that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care, that’s one thing. If you’re a professor, it’s something else. If you’re an auto mechanic, right? The guy, when he brings in his car, he really doesn’t care for you to give them a complete description about how auto injection systems work. He just wants you to know that you will care enough to fix it.
So, you bring that. And the same is true when you’re in a relationship, where you are trying to … You can sit and tell your husband or wife why you think this is going on in your relationship and where the problem is in your relationship. And there’s something to be said for the candor and consciousness in a relationship, but no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
Todd Schlosser: Absolutely. I like that one. Sorry.
Noah BenShea: That’s all right. I appreciate it. I appreciate it myself. I do. A lot of time … I used to say to people that when I’m speaking, oftentimes, I feel like I’m a sending telegrams to myself. And then I would look around. And if people were under 45, they’d be staring at me blankly. So, I’d pull back and say, “A lot of times when I’m speaking, I feel like I’m sending myself text messages.”
Todd Schlosser: That’s what I was gonna say. Telegrams are the text messages of the past, for sure. I have a friend who’s a stand up comic. And she says that whenever she thinks of a joke, she texts it to herself. Because she’ll never remember it unless she does.
Noah BenShea: I may remember it, but I want to make sure. It was like the old man who says to … He’s telling his grandson something. And the grandson’s, “I’m listing grandfather, I’m listening.” And he says, ‘I didn’t ask you if whether you’re listening, I’m asking whether you will take it to heart.”
Todd Schlosser: That’s a completely different thing.
Noah BenShea: It is. And one of the things I’ve … a telegram that I sent to myself when I was sending telegrams, was that my heart knows what my mind only thinks it does. I think that’s a real truth in this lifetime that our sensate aspect is important. The native Americans used to laugh that the white man, as they call, the person who casually and with confidence took everything they own, thought that the center of the world was in their mind or their mouth. But to a lot of other culture, it’s down here at the center of your being. And it’s all the other chakras and all at the end of your Kundalini if you’re into yoga now. So, I tend to think that my heart knows what my mind only thinks it knows.
Todd Schlosser: I talked to my friend yesterday, who is going through some health stuff. He had a virus attack his heart. And he’s going through a really hard time, and the doctors had to give them some bad news. And he’s just like, “I’m not super concerned about it because I know I’ll be fine.” And that is a knowing that is not in his head.
Noah BenShea: I think there’s a truth to that, and it’s no small part, plays a huge part in one’s own healing. At the same time we were just talking about between the facts and feelings, or opinions. I think the best description I’ve heard of that of late was that you can have an opinion about what the weather is today, but it’s a fact what the weather was yesterday. Right? So, lets, you know, like let’s keep …
It’s important to balance this reality, whether it’s an eastern conscious of the Yin and Yang, or the positive … you know. I think one has to, you know, the real … what they used to call, in eastern cultures, the middle path between what you know and what you feel. And holding those in balance and finding your balance in that is no small thing in this lifetime.
Todd Schlosser: I think, for me, it’s always been just a willingness to be wrong that has helped me learn so much, or just figure out how to do things well.
Noah BenShea: Well, my experience is that when I’m wrong, I’m wrong with conviction.
Todd Schlosser: Well, I’ve been wrongly conviction many times. [inaudible] many times.
Noah BenShea: It does that. At the same time, one thought is that too humble is half proud. And there’s a great story I like to tell about a man that was voted most humble by his church, and they gave him a metal. And the next Sunday, he came to church and he wore the metal and they took it away from him. So, I think you have to …
Todd Schlosser: I feel like that’s how you grow as a person. I mean, that may not be required to grow as a person, but it certainly has helped me grow as a person.
Noah BenShea: I think, in Christian theology, the first of the seven deadly sins is Hubris. Because I think Jung and Joseph Campbell and a lot of other really great teachers have used stories.
There was a farmer that had a very old donkey that was close to the end of his life, and a very old well that was dry and no longer provided any water. And one day the donkey’s stumbled and fell into the well. And the donkey started braying and braying and make crazy. And the farmer heard this and other people heard this. The farmer said to people, “Come over, come on and come over.” And he gave a bunch of them a shovel. And he says, “Look, the well is dry. The donkey’s old.” They all picked up a shovel and started throwing dirt into the well, right on top of the donkey. And again, the braying happened and they threw another.
Well, what they couldn’t see is every time the dirt landed on the donkeys back, he gave a little shake like this and the dirt fell off. And soon, the dirt kept piling up and he just pounced out of the well. So, what do we learn from this? We learn, in this lifetime, that all of us are going to get a little dirt thrown on us. And the question is, what do you do? How do you react? How do you experience and persevere against that circumstance. But for all the responsibility of how we deal when a little dirt is thrown on us in this lifetime, we can’t forget that this donkey was also the dumb ass that fell in.
Todd Schlosser: Sorry, I like that quite a bit. Doctor Sam, the CEO of Specialty Care, has a quote that he loves about persistence. And I have found that persistence in my life has made the difference between failing at anything or succeeding at anything. And you fail so much on the path to success.
Noah BenShea: I’ve heard doctor Sam. I asked him if I might call him.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. And I’ve been using itself that-
Noah BenShea: I much appreciate him and respect him. And to come back to that, I do think that, you know, Arnold Palmer says that, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” But I do think that luck is the progeny of persistence. That’s, you have to keep at it in this lifetime. There’s no …
Nobody in their life gets to a blow a whistle and say, “Timeout.” Right? You can’t get down on one knee and expect … Because we live on a little blue ball spinning in space at 1,060 miles an hour. If you know that or if you don’t know it, it doesn’t really matter. It has nothing to do with the fact of the game. This planet is spinning. So consequently, we’re spinning on a planet at 1,060 miles an hour. You can find your balance or lose your balance at any moment. You can have the terrible twos, the awful sixes, the terrible 28s, the forbidden 39s, the awful 72s. But there’s no mission accomplished.
There’s no mission accomplished in this lifetime. It’s how do you conduct yourself in any given moment and you try to find yourself in a state of balance at any given moment. That’s what this world is about, trying to … Because it isn’t that you don’t err. The question is, as one new astronaut said, “I don’t mind making mistakes. I want to make new ones.” Right? You want to like not get caught in the same traps over and over again, because a lot of people live their life as if they have another one in the bank. I wouldn’t bank on it. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t bank on it.
Somebody asked me once if I believed in reincarnation, and I said, “I do. I just don’t think you have to die to be reincarnated.” I think we got a chance to-
Todd Schlosser: I think Madonna has proved that.
Noah BenShea: … begin again. Probably even better than Shirley Maclaine.
Todd Schlosser: Okay.
Noah BenShea: Somewhere in that mix there. It may date me a bit. If you go to Madonna, I go to Shirley Maclaine. But also with Madonna right now, maybe, you know … and the latest thing, I guess, with Lady Gaga, who has been the transformational character of the time.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. My dad used to say growing up, and if ever came to him with a problem, it was, “All right, how do we get through it or how do you get through it?” It was always that. It was always how do we roll with this to make it up a positive experience or a learning experience, or how do we figure out how to solve it?
Noah BenShea: I think, oftentimes, very powerful men have sought my counsel about how they could pass strength to their children. And I reminded them that when I was … my daughter was born, I was a fellow at a very famous long range think tank, which required me wearing a suit and tie every day to the office, if you will. We sat at a felt covered table with microphones.
And I’d come home and my daughter … And I’d get down on my haunches and my daughter would run at me to knock me over. And when she knocked me over, my daughter was knocking over, with all respect to her mother, who she felt was the strongest person in her life. So, if she could knock me over, she was gaining strength. So, I would remind these men that if you wanted to pass … and to women too, to that extent. If you want to pass strength to a child, then oftentimes you have the courage not to pass strength, but to pass vulnerability to them.
Share vulnerability. Tell him when you’ve run into a problem, we’ve all run it. And I’ve had times when I’ve cried, and I don’t know what to do. And Dad, what did you do then? I carried on, because at some point this child is going to have the world rain on them, because the world rains and all of us, right? Except if you’re holding an umbrella, and it’s raining under the umbrella. And then you have to remind yourself that all the weather is inside of you. And then …
And if you have that experience, you will remember that my father was a pretty strong guy. My mother was an amazing woman. And she said she had things happen to her that were beyond her to solve or to fix. And sometimes, she would just sat that sit down and cry. Or my father would be exasperated and hid his tears because he didn’t want anyone to know about it. And what did he do then? He carried on. And what are you going to do now? I’m going to carry on, right?
Todd Schlosser: Yeah.
Noah BenShea: That’s what you do in this lifetime.
Todd Schlosser: So speaking of fathers, I always looked at my father as someone who had a lot of integrity. He was strong and he wasn’t always the top of the food chain, but he was always honest with himself about where he was, his place in the world, and how he could go about how do we fix this? How do we move through this? So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about integrity.
Noah BenShea: Integrity, by definition, is … First of all, it has two aspects to it. It’s to be self honest and self loving. Because if you are honest with yourself but not loving to yourself, then you will be brutal. And if you are loving to yourself but not honest, that’s betrayal. So, you need to bring a sense of honesty and love to care for yourself. Because until you can be honest and loving with yourself, you cannot be honest and loving with others. And a sense of integrity is who you are with you. The old line is who you are when nobody else is watching you.
I do think that integrity, like courage, happens on a very private stage. There is integrity or courage, and that courage of being, of people who run uphill under gunfire. But it’s also the woman who is battling alcoholism who, at 11 o’clock in the morning, doesn’t reach for the vodka bottle behind the glasses in the refrigerator. It’s the …
Integrity is the man who’s on a business trip at 11 o’clock at night in a bar and saying good night to some guys, and a woman had been talking to passes him a room key. And he says, “Thank you, but no.”
Its the kid, who at four o’clock in the afternoon, when the other kids challenge him to climb the tower, which is dangerous, otherwise they’ll call him weak, and all the bullying kind of names the kids will do with each other, or adults, he passes on that opportunity. And you know, integrity is not by chance. It’s the base of it is integral. And integral is it’s interior to you. So, no one else can grant you integrity. Only you con grant yourself integrity. And once you grant yourself integrity, you go Teflon, not velcro, in the world.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. And I think that the most important thing that I got from that was, in order to have integrity, it’s sort of important to have self awareness. And integrity really helps with that self improvement and improving. And there really isn’t much more to life than improving on where you are, whether that is financially or physically or mentally, improvement is a very important factor. Because without improvement, there is no growth.
Noah BenShea: There is change. Change is the only constant. Change is constant. Growth is optional. It does happen as a function if you wake up … you know, it’s like a guy who wakes up every day with hair in his pillow and pays no attention. And then, he wakes up one day and he suddenly shouts, “I’m bald overnight.” And you’re a question of paying attention. All personal transformation requires self witnessing. So, you have to have the courage to be self witnessing, to be honest with yourself, in order to be a catalyst, so that in change there is growth.
Todd Schlosser: Excellent. So, once you’ve been self aware, and you’re starting to improve, you can then help those around you improve through things like teamwork and strategy and stuff like that.
Noah BenShea: I think that’s true. I think we tend to forget though … I say to people, “If you wanted to sell honey to bees, you could take out a big billboard, or you could just take off the top from the jar and let them smell the honey.”
So, I think that we can be very helpful in the growth of others by information we share, by ideas, by classes, experiences. But a lot of it that most influences how we can impact others is by people being in our presence, and sensing there’s something about this person, and I choose to emulate how this person holds himself or carries himself, rather than other people who, you know, carry themself in another way.
I was talking with somebody earlier, was saying I was a fairly precocious young man. So, I had the company of very successful men, much older than me, when I was very young. And I learned as much from men whose lives I did not want to mimic as I did from those who I did want to mimic. So, I think that our spirit, our manner, our integrity, is both transparent and contagious. And if we want … If we’re a negative person, vengeful, boasting, bullying, we can be an infection on this planet. And the converse is true as well.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. The converse being if you are a positive light in the universe, you will bring positive thing and a positive change, hopefully, in your team or area or …
Noah BenShea: One of my prayers in my day is to ask the divine, in my own personal construct of how I perceive the divine, “Let me be a source of joy for your reflection of your light.” Because a lot of times, being a light doesn’t mean that you witness yourself as the light. What it means is that you’re prepared to diminish your own ego enough, so the greater light that’s part of the universe can be reflected off you.
So, you’re not like walking around and saying how … they say when Moses … how light I am. They say that when Moses was at the top of the mountain, and he had this moment with the divine and was given the 10 commandments, in the scripture, it says, “He came down the mountain and the light on his face became less.” The light on his face became less.
So, as the light on his face became less, Moses came down more with God and the humility of who he was, rather than coming back, confusing people that he was coming down as if he was the god. And that’s required in this lifetime, I think, not to confuse being the light with being a reflection of the light. And certainly, we’re not here to put a light on ourselves, but we are here to remind each other that at some point, at some time, in all of our lives, we’re all in the dark.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. So, when Moses came down from Sinai, he met with his congregation or flock, and they were worshiping an idol, which he was … had just been told not to do. And in rage, he destroyed both, not only the idol, but also what he brought down from Mount Sinai.
Noah BenShea: Right. And then, do you remember what was required of him?
Todd Schlosser: He had to go back up.
Noah BenShea: Exactly. You have to do the work until you do the work.
Todd Schlosser: That’s why I brought it back up, because it’s sort of that one metaphor touched on a few things that we had talked about.
Noah BenShea: Unless you do the work, you have to do the work. Somebody, in one of my book … In my new book, We’re All Jacob’s Children, somebody asked Jacob, one of the children, they asked him, why do they call it homework? He says, “Because until you do the work, you take the work home with you.”
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. And then, if in a fit of rage, you destroy both your work and people’s lives around you, you have to do the work again.
Noah BenShea: Exactly.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah.
Noah BenShea: Right? Even if you’re Moses.
Todd Schlosser: Yeah. Noah Ben Shea, author, poet, philosopher. Thank you so much for your time today and thank you so much for joining us here again on Scrubbing In.