Woodstock Wisdom

August 20, 2009

Festival Crowd

By James S. Gordon MD

Hey, I know I’m a little late, but I was a little late to Woodstock too. I hadn’t planned on going, but then another doctor as young as I was then called me up, desperate–actually, crazed. “You’ve got to get up here, man. They’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming, and there’s no food, no place to stay, nobody to take care of them.”

“I saw on television that the roads were jammed.”

“Forget about it, man—we’ll send a helicopter.”

And he did.

And that’s how my girlfriend Sharon and I–veterans of the civil rights and anti-war movements, former residents of the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley, and passionately committed to “health care for all”–found ourselves on the way to Bethel, New York.

Looking back this week on Woodstock, forty years later, wondering if there was anything I had to add to everything that everyone who was or wasn’t there has had to say, I realized I had actually learned a lot in those three days and that the lessons might be worth sharing.

Woodstock was a triumph of peace and love. It was a terrible mess.

Here they are, in the order they came to me.

* Always be ready to help. When someone asks with real need, you have to pay attention. Inconvenience–dicey travel plans, the loss of a precious few days of a psychiatric resident’s vacation—is really a small deal. Utter lack of knowledge about the conditions we were walking into or the support available to us once we got there—let it be, see what happens. Bottom line: if it feels right and necessary, do it.

* If you’re meant to do something, it’s likely, in spite of all improbabilities, that it will happen. I know, I know, this sounds hopelessly hippie-ish and “New Age,” but what am I going to do? Jung gave this acausal connection between internal intention and external events the more dignified name of “synchronicity.” Let’s call it that.

A helicopter did indeed take us from LaGuardia to a field near Bethel. It landed to pick up some performers. Questions were raised about whether we should be debarked so that Joan Baez’s mother could accompany her. “We can all go,” Sharon said cheerfully, but highly insistently. “We’re all needed.” And indeed, we did—Joan, her mother, and the two of us.

* Be patient, if it’s necessary, even when you really don’t want to be. This, I have to admit, is a lesson I’ve had to keep re-learning many times these last forty years, but Woodstock gave me a clear, undeniable glimpse of its usefulness.

Everyone was helpful, but no one actually knew how to find our friend, the doc who called. “He’s here” . . . “there” . . . “behind the stage” . . . “over by those tents.” Hopelessly lost half a dozen times, we picked our way among hundreds of thousands of bodies and got righteously irritated that no one seemed to know our friend or where we should go or where supplies could be found, or who else might be in charge—”Listen, you guys flew us up here to do this job. There are already kids all over the place with cut feet, sore throats, and bad trips. It’s starting to rain, and it’s gonna get worse.”

“Oh, wow, man,” they said. “That’s far out. Would you like some food, booze, hash, acid? Would you like a hug?” We had to laugh.

* If you build it—and they really need it—lots of people will come. Without supplies or shelter, we set up at the edge of the huge bowl where the bands were playing, Our spot was marked only by a sign, “First Aid.”

People started lining up immediately. An hour or so later, miraculously, antiseptics and bandages, sutures, and antibiotics started arriving, Wavy Gravy, the prince of hippie self-help, sent some guys with a tent.

* Opposition will come your way. The line is from reggae musician Jimmy Cliff (he wasn’t at Woodstock) but the truth is universal. By the second evening of the festival, more than 100 people were regularly in line outside our little tent. Some needed sutures—Sharon reminded me the other day how impressed she was with my one-hand surgical ties, and I am too, though I honestly don’t remember them. Others had respiratory infections and were working on pneumonias. And a very large number, quite young even to my 27-year-old eyes, had taken improbable quantities of unnamed and perhaps unnameable substances, and were deeply distressed. I went down the line triaging, and discovered about fifty of them.

“We need a bigger tent,” I told a guy who’d shown up with a two-way radio, “a real big one for 50-100 people.” The big tent arrived and I invited all the mentally, emotionally and psychically challenged to come inside. I spent time going from one to the other and realized the mission was truly impossible. There were simply too many, and despite Sharon’s best efforts the line outside our little tent was growing long.

* Self-care and mutual help are fundamental tools of all healing. This is a lesson I’ve been learning ever since my first days as a student on hospital wards, and it’s one that I’ve devoted much of my professional life to exploring and teaching to others. The couple of days in the big tent at Woodstock highlighted it luminously. Absolutely unable to care for all these people myself, and with only a couple of untutored volunteers available, I came up with a game plan. I asked all those who had taken too many ‘uppers’—amphetamines, cocaine, and the like—and were fidgety, agitated, and utterly at a loss to know what to do—to walk around vigorously, insistently holding, leading, urging on all those who had overdosed on ‘downers’ like heroin, barbiturates, quaaludes, and liquor. I asked the remaining kids, who were lost in the dark forests of psychedelia to sit on the floor of the tent in pairs or threesomes or fours. “Hold each other,” I instructed, “listen to each other. Take care of your brothers and sisters.” I told the volunteers to keep their eyes open and to get me in case of crisis. Every half hour or so I checked in.

The walking, holding, and hugging went on all night. The next morning, some of the young people, happy and calm enough, dropped by to thank me; others simply sat listening to the music.

* Nothing is perfect. Woodstock was a triumph of peace, love, and community, says just about everybody who was there. Millions of people now regard it as a touchstone, an example of what’s possible when you set aside fear and prejudice and promote love and peace. Yes. Woodstock was a self-indulgent mess, say some others, skeptical and cynical perhaps, and maybe scared of the unleashed id of the experience. And there’s some truth there too.

But there were other issues. I was, amidst the pleasure of the celebration, the impressive kindness and sharing, troubled by something else I saw and felt, a certain kind of dislocation and sadness in some of the young people.

They said they were disoriented by the crowds and uneasy being away from the cities and suburbs which were their homes. These feelings, of course, had been amplified by quantities of drugs consumed, but we heard and felt it in others who seemed more or less sober—an uneasiness and loneliness that camaraderie and crowds could not assuage. I heard it, too, in the months after Woodstock, from people who felt let down by the lack of fellow feeling in the world they returned to, by the absence of the indomitable hope that seemed to them to suffuse Bethel.

* You never know who your friends and teachers will be. I was already learning this during several years of psychotherapy and meditation and from time spent ministering to the so-called “mentally ill”—as well as hippies. It was possible, I was finding, to find solace, friendship, and even wisdom in unlikely places and with unexpected people. Woodstock reinforced this mightily.

During the three days of the festival I met apparently hapless kids with remarkable skills in erecting shelters, scrounging and preparing food, and tending to the ill and crazed. I was impressed over and over again by the exuberant effectiveness of Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm tribe, the courtesy of celebrities like Joan Baez who really did believe in “power to the people,” the kindness and good sense of those who volunteered to help out.

It all came home to me, appropriately enough, on the way back home, in a small plane that Sharon and I shared with the chief of police of Beverly Hills, who had come to supervise security. “Great kids,” he said. “Great festival. Great view,” he added as he gestured toward the Manhattan skyscrapers over which we were flying. “People will be talking about this for a long time.”