Saturday, January 19, 2013

`Not the Same as What's Important'

I can’t shake the sense that talking about one’s health, good or bad, even with a doctor, is sometimes indecent. We’re egotists. Our ailments must surely fascinate the world, and as we complain we count on the emotional blackmail embedded in our words: They’ve gotta listen. I’m sick!  Sometimes I don’t listen. I’m too preoccupied with my own problems. David Myers writes: “Another bad report from my oncologist, another `last resort’ drug kicked.” I read this on returning from a visit to my cardiologist, the one who catheterized my heart a week earlier. My news was good – no blockages, no scarring, no further invasive measures, at least for now. What are the ethics of sharing good news with a friend who just heard bad news? Which choice – to tell or not to tell -- is more egocentric? I don’t know. I told David. He called it “fantastic news” and moved on. Are we a couple of alter kockers descending further into self-regard? Was David alluding to this as he silently cited Yeats?: 

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.” 

“Soul clap its hands and sing”: I thought of the Shakers and Hasidim. David deploys another unannounced allusion: “It’s true that cancer concentrates the mind wonderfully, but it’s also wonderful just what the mind prefers to concentrate upon.” He counts on us recognizing the nod to Boswell quoting Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The context of Johnson’s remark is complicated (go here for a brief explanation). David’s conclusion helps dispel the suggestion of sentimentality and self-pity, and obliquely answers my earlier question about ethics: 

“While the inessential is stripped away, it turns out that what’s essential is not the same as what’s important. The essential is what makes soul clap hands and sing, and no counsel to get serious in the face of death stands much chance of being heard over the essential racket.”

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