An interview with Peter Hunt on Discovering Joy in Suffering through Everyday Kindness on October 18, 2023 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.
Possessing an inspired writing style described as “beautifully authentic poetry in prose,” Peter Hunt’s stories—all real-life adventures—unfailingly advance uncommon perspectives and exceptional insights. Hunt was born in New York and spent six years of childhood in Greece, where his parents taught at the American Community School (ACS) in Athens. Hunt, a renegade from youth, made his first four scuba dives before taking the “required” diving class. Soon after moving back to New York in 1979, he became a certified diver and found part-time work crewing three wreck diving boats based out of New York. In 1983 and 1984, Hunt participated as a crewmember on five Andrea Doria expeditions from the deck of the Research Vessel Wahoo. At ages 21 and 22, Hunt planned and conducted 13 highly technical stage decompression dives, breathing air over 220 feet deep while penetrating far inside the largely intact luxury liner. The Wahoo returned from the Mount Everest of wreck diving, arriving at the Montauk, New York commercial docks welcomed by three area TV news crews as they witnessed the divers disembark with the first publicly disclosed artifacts from the Andrea Doria.
After graduating with a history degree from Brown University in 1985, Hunt joined the U.S. Navy and trained as an A-6 Intruder attack pilot. During his Naval service, he completed three aircraft carrier deployments to the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific over ten years of active duty. Hunt was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals with the combat “V” for “Valor” for heroism while participating in aerial flight during Operation Desert Storm. After leaving the Navy, Hunt flew for United Airlines, including working as a Boeing 757 pilot on the first day of regularly scheduled airline flights after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks. Unable to fly commercially after a young onset Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 2005 at age 43, Hunt began writing in earnest.
Peter Hunt holds a master’s degree from the University of Washington, is the father of two adult children, has one grandchild, and lives with his wife on Whidbey Island, Washington. He enjoys boating, swimming, visiting with old friends, and hiking in the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty. He is the author of Angles of Attack, an A-6 Pilot’s War (2002 & 2011); Setting the Hook, a Divers Return to the Andrea Doria (2011); The Lost Intruder, the Search for a Missing Navy Jet (2017); and Beyond Identity, Navigating Life’s Waters with Parkinson’s Disease (2020), all published by Great Write Books (Angles of Attack first edition published by Random House/Ballantine Books, 2002).
Please tell me a little about your background.
I have always been a bit of a loner, growing up with a painful shyness only temporarily overcome by drinking to excess. I would have to say that out of control, binge drinking was the unifying theme for about the first 35 years or so of my life. For reasons unknown to me, I was an extremely high-performing weekend binge drinker. I never drank during the work week or close to the legal time limits between drinking and flying. I can’t say the same for diving, however. But as dangerous and technically demanding as my first 20 years of diving were, diving has always been a serious hobby to me and was never my real job. So, I feel safe saying my drinking did not affect my work.
I bring up drinking because it is essential to understand that for the better part of my life, I was operating under similar distractions to focus as Parkinson’s Brain fog currently induces. So, when I say, “Parkinson’s, fuck off” on my video blog, I mean it sincerely with attitude and passion: I’ve seen your face, Parkinson’s, and I’ll call you out as the pretender that you are. So far—and it’s been almost 19 years since diagnosis, including Deep Brain Stimulation surgery in 2014—Parkinson’s has not challenged me existentially as much as my pre-Parkinson’s life. But PD is relentless, never taking breaks, so time will tell whether I can laugh at PD long term, responding to each exhausting attack with a semblance of grace.
It is easy to misunderstand what I’m doing and conclude me to be insensitive or victim-shaming. Although this is not my intention, it could be true. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or add to their burden, but I am willing to risk becoming a pariah if that is what it takes to get people’s attention.
At the same time, I’ve got to remember to maintain a degree of sensitivity to those who have not experienced the variety of challenges I was privy to in my pre-Parkinson’s life. But tactics of brutal honesty might be the only way to reach those thoroughly indoctrinated in the victim’s mindset. Regardless of how distasteful it might be, my goal is to wake up anyone suffering, not just those afflicted with PD, to let them know that they can attain joy and contentment irrespective of suffering. We all have our demons. It is difficult, but living with joy under severe hardship is possible.
Can you tell me more about your advocacy?
My advocacy so far has been limited to writing, both my blog and my books, the last four of which have dealt with PD in some fashion. My advocacy is direct and personal with the reader. I do not generally participate in fundraising, which can deaden a person’s empathy and compassion, cheapening the potential for a spiritual awakening due to Parkinson’s. I am fully aware of the inherent contradiction in what I am saying and how my inaction with fundraising might be construed as selfish, refusing to do the work while enjoying any gains made in treatment or quality of life. I don’t yet have an answer to this enigma other than to say that in the future, I will try to be open to fundraising so long it does not, in my opinion, involve the direct monetization of anything that used to be a soulful pursuit.
I have never been to the non-profit-sponsored “big events,” preferring to avoid anything that might tempt me to self-identify with PD. I don’t belong to a support group for much the same reason. I am not saying that this is the “right” way. It is just my personal preference. I fully support these venues if they work for you.
People often tell me that I inspire those with PD or face some other life challenge. My reply is that I don’t consider myself disabled. I don’t have a handicapped parking pass, and I like to believe that the extra distance covered walking across parking lots over the years has contributed to me not requiring a cane or other mobility assistance device now. It should not be considered an exaggeration of possibility; the most effective strategy in slowing down Parkinson’s advances is to move and exercise. Are we perhaps counterproductive when we make it easy to get a disabled parking pass for those with Parkinson’s? Doesn’t this send the wrong message?
I do my best to steer clear of anything designed to make my life easier. Since when did easy become synonymous with best? I still tie my shoes and get dressed/undressed unaided, expressly because I did not depend on Velcro shoelaces or spill-less cups. Parkinson’s identifies better than any other disorder with the saying, “Move it or lose it.” Still, we continue substituting easy for best, making hard a dirty word. Although my voice is unintelligible by most afternoons, I still travel between the two coasts four to six times a year, usually with one or two unaccompanied, and enjoy boating—often by myself—and hiking, usually solo.
What is your passion, and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure?
My passion is in helping other people deal with their suffering. I’m not a big fan of the concept of “hope.” I view it as the future what regrets are to the past: at best, it makes you feel marginally better while doing nothing substantive to move the ball towards your personal goal. Focusing on hope and regret are—in my opinion—key indicators that a person is operating from a victim mindset.
What goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when seeing your advocacy?
All kinds, and I suspect many (most?) simply turn off whatever I say. Once in the victim mindset for any length of time, it is tough for most people to consider a new approach in their thinking. My suggestions for dealing with PD advocate doing things the hard way. I call it an empowered approach. Only by acting outside our comfort zone can we grow and learn, view society’s artificialities, and leverage them to our advantage. For example, when symptoms advance with Parkinson’s progression, there is a tendency to attempt to hide the symptoms, in the extreme, through isolation. Self-isolation is neither healthy nor fun.
However, consider the same situation from the empowered perspective. When the individual can no longer hide symptoms, it becomes a liberating experience, leading eventually to not caring about what others think of you. The sense of newfound freedom when you stop trying to hide your symptoms is profound.
What effect can your advocacy have on an individual with Parkinson’s?
It won’t cure anyone. That’s not the point. Everybody will die. Once you accept this fact from the depths of your soul, the general lunacy of society’s interpretation of life becomes apparent, laughter flows, and the seeds of joy are planted.
What would you like to see as a future goal for your advocacy?
There is nothing but the present moment.
How does your advocacy also assist caregivers?
An environment rich in laughter and happiness has got to make it easier for caregivers; it sure beats complaining.
How can someone get in touch? What is your website?
How can others also become advocates for awareness?
I firmly believe that individuals must figure out what brings them joy: not fleeting happiness or satisfaction of desire, but lasting deep joy. The common feature in all success stories of this nature seems to be a recognition that the key to this state of being is helping others through kindness in everyday life. Try being kind to everyone—giving is better than receiving.
If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson’s community, what would it be?
“We all walk a precarious trail, bracketing victory and disaster in an unseen display of familiar discrimination, taunted by nature’s exalted indifference, lamenting the lost joy of simply being.”
– Peter Hunt, from BLUE WATER: BORN A PISCES, POSEIDON HAS ALWAYS BEEN MY GOD.