When he was eight years old, Bennie Carson had his most spectacular Christmas ever. His mother, his aunt, and his uncle swamped the two Carson boys with toys to try to make up for the departure of his bigamous father. It was also the year of his first religious experience, the year he came home to the heavenly Father.
Pastor Ford of Detroit’s Burns Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church had just told the suspenseful story of a missionary-doctor husband and wife who were miraculously rescued from a gang of bandits. As the congregation sang the invitation song, the inspired Bennie decided he wanted to follow Jesus, he wanted to be a missionary, and he wanted to be a doctor.
Today he is an active Christian, a leading pediatric neurosurgeon, and a missionary of sorts. Sitting in his cramped cubicle in the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, he says with quiet passion, “There is a great deal of missionary work that can be done right here in this country. And I spend a fair amount of time trying to do it. I feel that the US is in a crisis situation, educationally and spiritually.
“We are rapidly approaching a Third World situation,” he says, citing ominous statistics. Our young people’s ability to understand science and math is thirteenth out of thirteen of the major industrialized countries.”
Though he gave up his plan to become a foreign missionary, Dr. Ben Carson is an avid preacher of the gospel of hard work, dedication, and achievement.
He can preach these things because his own achievements are remarkable: by age 33, the chief pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins; the surgical-team leader in the first completely successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the head; the perfecter of the hemispherectomy as a surgical treatment of seizures in young children.
What may be more remarkable is his belief that others from humble circumstances have the same chance that he did. What stand in their way are the good intentions of liberal politicians.
“I think one of the greatest tragedies that ever occurred in the United States of America was the emergence of the liberals after the civil rights struggle. The liberals started handing out things to everybody, creating a welfare state mentality at a time when doors were beginning to open and people could make it on their own because of perseverance and hard work.
“Now there are no consequences for irresponsible behavior. Look at the soaring rate of fatherless children. I’m talking about gradually reversing that emphasis, so that people learn that there are consequences for actions, and that they are to take responsibility for themselves.” He compares the state of the economic underclass to that of grizzly bears in a national park: “People started giving them food, and they forgot how to hunt, how to live in the wild.” The hand that feeds, destroys.
Powerful men often surround themselves with the symbols of power: expansive desks of rare woods, ankle-deep carpets, objetsd’art, and trophies of achievement. Among the powerful, any sign of actual work is usually hidden.
But Ben Carson’s office is cramped and too brightly lit. His functional desk is Formica topped. His objets d’art are crayon drawings of Sesame Street characters, the cultural icons of the American child. Nothing in these surroundings is there to make a statement. This is not an office, but a workshop; the books and journals that crowd its shelves are the intellectual tools of his trade and the weapons with which he fights the neurological disorders that can erase a child’s future.
Once his weapon was not a scalpel, but a knife, and his passion was not healing, but rage. Today’s visitor, leaning forward and straining to hear Carson’s words, would have a hard time believing this soft-spoken figure once was possessed by a volcanic temper. Carson refuses to try to understand that anger: Did it grow from frustration with the stoic code of silence his mother observed about her difficulties? Did it spring from feelings of abandonment? All he can do is tell how God conquered the anger and that interpersonal communication gradually opened up.
Carson’s temper erupted once too often when he was in the ninth grade. His best friend teased him about his taste in music and changed the channel to which his transistor radio was tuned. An instantaneous, blinding anger possessed Carson, and he grabbed the camping knife he carried in his hip pocket and lunged at his friend’s belly.
The attack was over as quickly as it had begun. Carson stared openmouthed at the knife in his hand, its blade snapped and lying on the ground. But for God’s grace and his friends ROTC belt buckle, it would have been Bob and not the knife blade on the ground.
Carson was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame. He ran home and locked himself in the bathroom with his Bible. The Bible fell open to Proverbs and its condemnation of those who are swift to anger. For hours, he read his Bible and prayed. He emerged believing that God had helped him, and determined never to let another person’s actions so control his reactions.
Racism, of course, is one way that people control other people. Carson decided as a young person that he would not let others’ racist attitudes limit his achievement. As one of few black children in a predominantly white school, he was once convinced that his blackness was a reason for his backwardness. But his mother’s encouragement and the rewards of his steps toward success convinced him otherwise. When he first came to Johns Hopkins, he was often mistaken for an orderly or a respiratory therapist. White nurses made racist assumptions about black men dressed in hospital whites. Even patients would ask, “When is Doctor Carson going to come?” But he decided not to be intimidated.
“Racism will exist as long as there are stupid people in the society,” he says. “People who cannot get past the color of somebody’s skin are obviously not intellectually inclined. But if you focus on that, you spend an awful lot of energy worrying about something that won't necessarily change and that doesn't necessarily affect what you can do. So why worry about it?
“My mother used to tell me, ‘Always remember that if you walk into a room full of racist people, you don't have a problem, they have a problem. You can sit anywhere in that room that you want; but they’re all worried about who you’re going to sit next to.’”
‘My mother used to tell me…,” he says. Like many black children, he was raised by a mother whose strength somehow exceeded her resources. She would not stand for his father’s bigamy and forced him to decide between his two families. He left, and she screwed up her courage and raised her boys.
While the three of them suffered from poverty, she herself suffered from clinical depression. When she felt the dark serpent wrapping about her, she would tell the boys she was going away “to visit relatives.” After leaving them with friends, she would check into a psychiatric hospital.
Bouncing back, Sonya Carson would work as hard as ever to make her boys successes. “Some people are born to work,” Carson wrote in his 1990 autobiography, GiftedHands. “And others are pushed into it by their moms.”
Once, when Mrs. Carson found out how poorly her son was doing in school, she insisted on good study habits, and good naturedly badgered him into learning his times tables. Because she worked in the households of the wealthy, she observed not only the manners but the mind habits of the successful. These she taught her boys. And once Ben discovered that self-discipline produced rewards, he no longer relied on his mother for motivation but began to drive himself to be the best speller in the class, to achieve the highest student score to date on the ROTC field grade examination while in twelfth grade, to go to Yale. At Yale, for the first time in his life, he was among people who were clearly brighter than he. He had to work even harder.
While a student, Carson worked as a recruiter for Yale. When he saw bright students fail to achieve their potential, he resolved to encourage young people at every opportunity. Their inability to “think big,” he says, is their biggest obstacle. Indeed, THINK BIG is the acrostic he frequently uses in his inspirational talks: Recognize your Talents and don’t waste Time, live in Hope and deal in Honesty, glean Insights from experience, be Nice to people, acquire Knowledge, read Books, learn Indepth, and rely on God.
Carson’s recipe runs directly counter to what he sees as the trends of the culture. “We have to start emphasizing intellectual achievement over sports, entertainment, and the accumulation of material things,” he argues, making a point frequently underscored in his talks to young people. “By the time the average person in this country is 18 years old, he has watched over 18,000 hours of television. And the overriding emphasis there is on sports, entertainment, and the accumulation of wealth. Young people begin to feel that there’s nothing else as important. The media need to start realizing the responsibility they have for our youth.” He pauses to reflect. “If I had my druthers, I would simply ban most of the entertainment industry and put books in its place . . . but that’s not going to happen.”
Carson may believe in hard work, but it’s clear that that is not all he believes in.
He believes even more in prayer. Despite—or because of—his tremendous success in risky brain surgeries, he is in the habit of giving parents “prayer homework.”
And he believes in prayer because he believes in miracles, of which he has experienced many. The most notable occurred when he was a freshman at Yale. Discouraged by the difficulty of his chemistry class, and ready to give up his goal of practicing medicine, he studied hard for the big exam, then left the results in God’s hands and went to bed. While he slept, he dreamt he was taking a chemistry test and working out the answers. And the next morning, he discovered that his test was problem-for-problem what he had seen in the night. Such experiences confirm not only his belief in God, but his confidence in his special calling. He believes he has “gifted hands”—not “gifted” in some vague, colloquial sense, but as a special divine endowment of eye-hand coordination and an ability to see three-dimensionally into a brain and know what the results of an action will be.
He sits in his chair, his slender legs twisted around themselves, and his long, slender fingers fairly shouting their dexterity. Those fingers, constantly in motion as the doctor nervously massages them, are the fingers of precision, digits with an intelligence of their own: gifted hands.
When this article appeared in the May 27, 1991, issue of Christianity Today, David Neff was managing editor.
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