Today one of my colleagues at the Fetzer Institute, Dr. Joel Elkes, celebrates his 95th birthday.  No, that is not a typo.  He was born in 1913, lived through two World Wars and a century of struggle.  He was a student in England in the 30’s and 40’s and thus escaped the Holocaust, though many members of his family did not.  He has written a memoir of his own father, who perished in the Kovno Ghetto.  Joel has served the Fetzer Institute as senior scholar-in-residence for many years and divides his time between Kalamazoo, MI, and Sarasota, FL.

I count it a great privilege just to sit in the presence of Joel Elkes and his wife Sally Lucke, two of the most vibrant, hopeful people I know.  I wish him a happy birthday today from the Detroit airport.

Joel was a good friend of two other giants–Jonas Salk and Jacob Bronowski.  He gave the Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture at the Salk Institute on January 19, 1978, “On the Neurosciences, Awareness, Choice, and the Good Day.”  Joel knows how to combine delightfully strange ideas and to make the theoretical eminently practical.

The way he described Jacob Bronowski at the beginning of this lecture, applies perfectly to himself, thus fulfilling the aphorism that we often become what we admire: “Jacob Bronowski was a vast continent of a man, cognisant of his own map and deeply aware of his own geology.”

I thought immediately of Shakespeare’s words for Cassius in describing Julius Ceasar: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Collosus.”  But Joel Elke’s description is even more profound.  Bronowski was not just huge, like the Collosus of Rhodes or any other natural wonder, he was a huge natural force aware of his own topography, “cognisant of his own map.”

Since Joel built three major research centers for brain sciences as they relate to mental illness, and since he is one of the founders of the field of psychopharmacology, he knows much about mapping the brain.  Bronowski, like Joel, was a big thinker, someone who did not yield to the temptation to learn only more and more about less and less.  He contemplated the universe and everything in it.  So does Joel.  And out of that contemplation comes the map of his own mind.  Out of that contemplation comes intimate knowledge of the layer upon layer of metaphoric sand and rock–igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic–that compose the human mind. The layers at the deepest level were not placed there by us, and there is no way to separate one person’s geology from the landscape of the whole.

The brain can be mapped.  The mind and spirit have to be explored.  The wise person has intimate knowledge of both.  Memoir writers at their best are cartographers of their own lives, connecting them to the geology of the places that formed their spirits and of the people who have gone before them.

Joel, I hope you are laughing today in Kalamazoo.  Thank you for giving me such a vivid image of just how wide and deep one life can be.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Parker J. Palmer on November 12, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Yes, Shirley, yes! Joel Elkes is one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand, whether we know it or not. For me, he not only models science at its very best. Even more important, he serves as an extraordinary living example of the fact that that out of immense and unspeakable heartbreak can come an even greater immensity of compassion, humanity and wisdom. Joel's witness constantly reminds me that what breaks my heart need not break it into a million pieces, but can break it open into new largeness, into greater capacity to hold the world's suffering as well as its joy. And anyone who knows Joel as I do knows that joy and laughter are as core to his being as brilliance and compassion. I had lunch with Joel and his wonderful wife, Sally, just a few weeks ago and I can still hear his roar! And, might I add, he has the sense of humor most often found in 14-year old boys! Unfortunately, I cannot give examples here lest the Internet Censors step in! One more thing: even as Joel celebrates his 95th birthday, he is working on a new project focused on “living one good day at a time” — a concept he explains with eloquence via words and even more so via the way he lives. So Happy Birthday, Joel! What else can I say except I love you!

  2. Sharon L. Palmer on November 12, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Happy, happy 95th birthday, dear Joel. What wisdom and vibrancy and vision and color you bring to the world! Your friendship is a treasure. I celebrate you and the beauty and courage and strength with which you live your life. I wish I was there to give you a birthday hug and receive one of those special “Joel” kisses! In lieu of that, I'm going to send you some poems (via Shirley) which I hope you'll find both meaningful and enjoyable. With love, Sharon

  3. Eric Nelson on November 17, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Joel is one of the most curious people I have met which permeates both his own quest for knowledge and wisdom as well as his keen interest in what others are passionate about. Joel has been a friend and mentor to me over the years and helping me see the light in some despairing times in my life. For me Joel is a shining beacon of love, compassion and rigorous inquiry, a powerful combination that animates Joel's work in the world. Thank you Joel for the blessings you continue to pour upon me, you are a gift to all. Shalom Salaam Peace

  4. […] Joel Elkes, whose 95th birthday was celebrated in a previous post, believes that a good life is built one good day at a time.  As a pioneer in the field of […]

  5. […] I had the privilege, while working at the Fetzer Institute of meeting both Brother David and another advocate of the concept of the good day, Joel Elkes. […]

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