A Champion of 'Responsible Pleasures' >

 


The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21, 1999

 

Until the other day, never before had anyone given me flowers, much less a man, much less an employee of a chemical company.

Seized by a spring impulse, Rick Lippin plucked two radiant yellow daffodils from the bank of the creek that flows through his backyard in Upper Southampton, Bucks County, and handed them to me.

“I’m intrigued by the gorgeousness of flowers,” he said. “Each one is a miracle in itself.”

It was a surprise, but fitting in the context of our conversation. Minutes before, standing on a wooden bridge over that creek (where Lippin often retreats to meditate), we’d been discussing life, death, art, creativity, and the importance of pleasure, nature and beauty.

If he had to encapsulate his philosophy of life, Lippin told me, a quote from Mahatma Gandhi would do: “Real beauty is my aim.”

Appreciating beauty is one of the “responsible pleasures” Lippin advocates for achieving health and happiness. These days, his practice of medicine is built around a startling idea — that “incorporating responsible pleasures into patients’ lives is the single most underestimated and underutilized source of health in our time.”

When Lippin talks about “responsible pleasures,” he is quick to emphasize responsible. He is not talking about “neurotic hedonism” or destructive addictions like drugs, booze and reckless sex. He means edifying pleasures like exercise, laughter, rest, contemplation and companionship. Also, savoring the delights of the senses; enjoying art, nature and fulfilling orgasmic sex; and doing good and meaningful work.

He trumpets “a paradigm of medical optimism” based on “love of life, self-determination and responsibility” (instead of the current paradigm based on “fear of death, dependency and victimhood”). His advice to his fellow physicians: Stop being finger-wagging scolds. To slow the rush to alternative medicine, doctors must be more than body mechanics, he says. They must not only cure, they must care. Doctors must not be afraid to write “behavioral prescriptions — to give permission, even encouragement, to enjoy the beauties and bounties of life without guilt.”

At age 54, Lippin, who is married and the father of two, is an engaging blend: smart and cheerful, probing and exuberant. Following his own prescription, he laughs readily and heartily. For more than two decades, he has specialized in occupational and environmental medicine as corporate medical director at Lyondell Chemical Co. (formerly Arco Chemical) in Newtown Square.

There, he practices his own style of holistic medicine, dispensing not only pills but also pep talks. In medical school, he earned honors in psychiatric studies. He is fascinated by the way the mind works, and you get the feeling he wishes he were a psychiatrist today. Actually, much more than that: Andrew Weil, Bill Moyers, Carl Jung and Jerry Seinfeld rolled into one.

From his father, Lippin learned to laugh at life’s curveballs. From his mother, he learned “the pleasure of ideas.” He grew up in Feltonville and at an early age became an “idea junkie.” Intellectual discourse being scarce, Lippin turned to TV and Fulton J. Sheen. It mattered not that Lippin was a budding humanistic Jew; Sheen, a dogmatic Catholic bishop.

He graduated from Olney High and Temple, where he majored in biology. He loved biology because it was “so elegant and beautiful.” His parents urged him to become a doctor. At Temple med school, he was disillusioned; it was more about technology than humanity.

In his work, he often treats corporate hard-chargers, highly productive workaholics plagued by stress, anxiety, and the inability to enjoy life and appreciate what matters. More and more, he sees his essential task as “motivating these people to give themselves pleasure without guilt.”

Lippin believes that “the pursuit of happiness” is not only an inalienable right but also the right way to live. What interferes is our fear of death, which drives much of our behavior. Paradoxically, only by confronting death, he says, can we fully savor life, only by shaking hands with Thanatos can we dance with Eros.

Today, we’re buffeted by so much change that the river of life is constant whitewater. But the remedy for existential loneliness and modernistic despair, says Lippin, is not Eastern mysticism and transcendence (too disembodied and passive), but creativity — to make art, to do good and meaningful work. Says Lippin, “We should strive to be human doings, not just human beings.”

Lippin creates by writing poetry. In med school, he began a poetry group for doctors and in 1985 found-
ed the International Arts-Medicine Association, devoted to exploring the relationship between medicine and the creative arts. His credo:
“The true healer neither knows nor seeks boundaries between the arts and medicine.”

His ambition now is to be a cheer-b leader for “the divine artist in everyone.” We achieve immortality, he says, only by creating — children, work, art. When we create, we reaffirm the life force, exercising a gift and giving a gift. Art is not a pastime but a way of living, and defying death.

Lippin tells a story: When his son, Kenny, was 7, he began weeping one day; he had just realized that some day he would die. Lippin held him in his arms and read him one of his poems. “When my body dies, I'll still be here,” he told his son, “because part of me lives in you, part of me lives in my work and part of me lives in this poem.”

A few months later, Kenny Lippin also began writing poems, one so good it won a county prize.
As I take my leave, daffodils in hand, Lippin gives me a small paper bag. Inside are three books, including a volume about the healing power of the poetry of William Blake. “Instead of giving people pills,” says Lippin, “I give them books.”

Art Carey

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