Tuesday, September 12, 2006


The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.

So today was my day off this week, and I spent part of the morning watching ER. I don't actually have TV at home, so when I'm away, living out of a hotel room, the novelty gets the better of me sometimes. Anyway, so I'm watching ER, and the thought came to me that yes, the heart wrenching decisions you see on a show like that are made, every day, in a hospital. But what they don't show you is the fact that sometimes, you don't even notice they are being made. There is humor and tragedy all around, but like the rest of life, if you aren't paying attention, it will pass right by you.

I think the most important moments of our lives often occur without a second thought. We don't always see them coming, and we don't necessarily notice while they are happening. It is only afterward, looking back, that we notice, and either exult or regret. Families don't think about living wills until after their loved one is comatose, and then they argue in the ICU over what is to be done. Mothers think two children is enough, and then, five years later with a new husband, listen with tears in their eyes as they are told the tubal ligation reversal didn't work, and that is all the children of their own they'll ever have.

I used to think (and maybe still do, in my conceit) that working where I do throws life into harsh perspective. That it makes each decision about life or death, and therefore more meaningful. But I'm becoming convinced, oddly enough sitting on a cheap mattress in a hotel room watching a mass market drama, that this is just life, and the perspective is what makes it meaningful.


zhoen said...

Which is why I prefer "Scrubs" to "ER."

MrStandfast said...

Before reading further, realize that I think the work you do is amazing, and wonderful, and I am proud to be your brother.

Two things you are that you say you aren't:
1 - A romantic in the vein of Wordsworth
2 - A postmodern.

1 - You'll be loathe to recognize Wordsworth's "spots of time" that, according to him, "with distinct preeminence, create a renovating virtue," if I remember the quotation right.

2 - You finish with the notion that it is perspective and not so much the rough carpentry of reality that provides meaning. You metanarrative hater you.

That said, you seem confronted with two options for dealing with your first two afflictions:
1 - Transcendentalism. Troubled by the notion that life is on the other elevator while you're getting snacks in the lobby, you could glorify the mundane, elevate the commonplace and find your dinvinty in your grain of sand, and probably die alone and unafraid, refusing to believe in God like Thoreau. Or you could be more tempered like Emerson, or better yet, the wise Carlyle. You could believe in the streaming godstuff that courses through the drabness of the everyday, filling our moments that aren't pretty enough for Wordsworth's verse.

2 - Be a good old Scottish Presbyterian. inner worldy ascetecism my man. It's Perhaps the one thing Carlyle missed (and thoreau was holding up tree bark against the light of a fire he accidentally started and forgot to help put out studying it and remarking to himself "ahh what powerful forces are at work in this grand mystery of the rough and natural" before shambling off to look at ants...in short he missed this point too and a lot of others).

Presbyterians articulated with grace the notion of calling and of everyday labor glorifying God. Priesthood of all believers, yes, but beyond that, it also means that you can't measure out your life in coffee spoons (you damned modernist)

It's easy to think that time needs redeeming of that type you're looking for. It's easy to think that the orld is bleary enough between sudden rushes, or encounters with beauty. But is it a question of whether we see clesrly? Or is it that our noticing something MAKES it significant. If it's the second, then you give mankind a little more credit than I do. Call me dismal, but the idea that we create our own meaning in life is just about the most depressing news in the world. Oddly enough it's why Carlyle almost committed suicide, believing there was no God, no truth, no fixity. If you ask me he was just being honest. I think (in my more dismal moments) that the honest postmodernist would scrunch up his lips and realize that simply relying on perspective as the SOURCE of meaning isn't enough to answer his hunger. It isn't enough for just about anything.

"Faith is properly the one thing needful; how, with it, Martyrs, otherwise weak, can cheerfully endure the shame and the cross; and without it, worldlings puke up their sick existence by suicide, in the midst of luxury." --Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

Nathan said...

I still don't think I'm a postmodernist. I know the confusion arises because I wasn't really clear in my closing. What I was trying to say is that seeing the beauty and tragedy in every moment is not an ability confined to physicians, and it is not solely practiced in hospitals. It is possible to see that wherever you are, though it may be easier in a hospital, because the essentials of life are constantly in front of your patients and you.

I should have said "perspective allows you see the meaning" except that it's a singularly ungainly phrase.

I opened with a quote from Seneca for that reason, because in the work that bit comes from, he is discussing how to properly live life, how to focus on the essentials. That's what I was trying to get at, I think.