Better than we know ourselves
Dr. Milton Mazer of West Tisbury died Sunday evening. A Harvard trained psychiatrist Dr. Mazer helped found the Martha's Vineyard Mental Health Center, which eventually became Martha's Vineyard Community Services, the social services heart of the Island. He was a gentle, amused, compact, principled, liberal, unassuming man. He got to know Islanders better than they knew themselves.
He described us - that is, the us we were immediately before the tsunami of change came ashore in the mid-1970s, in "People and Predicaments" (Harvard University Press), his 1976 classic.
He described his book this way: "This book is based on my clinical work ... It owes much to the subtle intimations that came to me day by day as I became more and more a part of the community, joining in its everydayness ... For in addition to my job as director of the Martha's Vineyard Mental Health Center, I have for nine years been moderator of the West Tisbury town meeting. I have come to believe that the second job is of equal importance to and complements the first."
Who were we? "The islander refuses to be hobbled by the values of the Protestant ethic: thrift, piety, work for work's sake. He is willing to earn less as the price of freedom. He shows little interest in the unionization that would increase his wages, because he fears it would limit the range of his occupation and curtail his free time. When the deer season comes, he expects to be able to take the week off because he is often paid only when he works. If he cannot afford to, he expects to be able to have his gun at hand if the job is out of doors and near a wood."
With their modest wants, Islanders were gun toting, union shunning, freedom loving, and impious. They carved their own paths.
"If he has inherited land," Dr. Mazer wrote of some of those early examples of the Vineyard breed, "he values it more than the things its sale might permit him to have, for the possession of land gives him prestige and deference from his neighbors, and its sale is felt as a betrayal of the past."
Now on this point, things have changed enormously. Pneumatic land values and withering estate taxes may have made cash king even for old time Islanders over the years.
"Many islanders who are rich in land live quite poorly, selling bits of land in crises when illness strikes or when a child wants to go to college. The term land poor, though archaic in many places, has real meaning on the island."
Here again the value of adjusting their net worth upward has tempted Islanders and led them to recognize the wisdom of well-timed divestitures and the benefits of well-funded retirement in Florida.
"Planning for the future is of no great concern; the now seems more important than the morrow." There is a principle to which we are devoted, along with most of our mainland fellow citizens.
"Planning and zoning were until recently troublesome words, dangerous to use in public meetings. The islander's primary interest is in what he will do today and, after that, his recollections about the past. Until recently, when the very nature of his life was threatened by the unrestrained plans of 'land developers' and speculators, he rarely concerned himself with might be; he was more interested in what is and what had been."
Dr. Mazer's understanding, now more than two decades old, of how we live our lives and confront external forces continues to be remarkably durable.
"The islander's view of human nature departs from the generally optimistic, liberal belief that man is innately good and is corrupted by the evil in society. Human nature is usually seen by the islander as innately evil, in comparison to his middle class summer visitors who see it as a mixture of good and evil."
"The implications of these findings for mental health or mental disorder are governed by the fact that islanders are composed of two groups, those who were born and have lived on the island all of their lives and those who have come to the island. Whether the in-migrants possess the dominant values of contemporary American culture to a greater degree than do the natives, or whether their choice of a community represents a deviance from those values, is not certain."
Trained as a scientist, but devotedly anchored in the dailyness of life in this community, Dr. Mazer balanced detachment and engagement so that each informed the other, to the great benefit of us, his neighbors.