One of my old-time friends, part of the coterie of people I attracted who was equally smart, socially dejected, and possessed of a primitive urge to justness, had commended me often during my medical training. As he saw it, within our circle, there were plenty who read widely, knew a bunch, and got easy day-jobs with which to sustain themselves in middle-class luxury. I, on the other hand, was bound to do something that made a difference to other people.
One takes a compliment however he can get it. When I professed a militant atheism in my youth, I still condescended to be flattered when a group of nuns passing through the door I held open for them invoked a blessing. Nowadays, when I sometimes feel unmoored from any block or tide-lapped stone I might have hooked to in the past, it is in fact easiest to take people at their intentions (and what’s more, to be generous in the imputation). This is perhaps living too much for the ease of others; in any case, if I were ever to figure it just what I wanted out of life, I calculate just this pose would free me as much as possible to pursue it, myself unpursued by others.
In any case, it did not feel then as if I were contributing to any good whatsoever, save perhaps that of a few lending institutions. As a student, I bumbled and was ineffectual. As a resident, it seemed my best was always only a way of putting the patient off until the next appointment. My own good—well, during training it was almost impossible to imagine my well-being served in any way by the constant anxiety and tension I felt.
And, anyway, I was disenchanted with medicine. It was not just I who, with increasing ability to charm, satisfied patients only as far as their next appointment. Attendings—even some I trusted—expressed much the same thing. Sure, if one had appendicitis, or came down with a bad infection, please call the physician. But to the steady stream of patients with chronic pain, years-long sleep deprivation, souls black with despair, nerves shot, heads dizzy—what could I offer them? Only, as time went on, the medicamentum of the surety of my voice, the balm of my silent listening.
I should be a minister, I thought. At least then we could dispense with the fraud of healing. To listen and dispense grace as from an unseen tap. And in any case, I would still see death and chronic illness. Only now no one could ask me my expert opinion on how best to treat.
Christ, Scripture says, was a healer. He mixed within his ministry the cure of the diseased and the exorcism of demons. How can I pretend to that?
But again—to play prelate would be to trade a false surety of diagnosis for a false surety of blessing. It is a rare person, especially when ill, who prizes uncertainty and doubt in those who care for him. But this was all I felt I could offer anyone, in any capacity. The more one learns, after all, the more the horizons of knowledge are pushed further back, and the broadness of the compass of that which one does not know grows in quadratic proportion. The mean person with his catechism or pamphlet pronounces. The learned man, when he is honest with himself, can only advise. And that which he
would like to say, in the way of fully conveying just with how many grains of salt said advice should be taken, would crowd out the advice.
For he knows nothing so surely as that he does not know everything. And the way out of the historical circular conundrum is that one feels it viscerally, with the same organ with which he feels dread at each approaching examination, or sorrow at each past funeral.
Just what use native intelligence and an inquisitive mind? And the mistake was assuming that people such as my friends were deluded, and really had stumbled onto the ideal life, comfily nested within a narrow but spacious crevasse in modern society. But then, turning away from that fallacy, it would be easy to fall prey to the insidious idea that no calling depending primarily on native intelligence or an inquisitive mind was worthwhile to anyone, except in that way which bought fabulous houses and private jets for young, daring entrepreneurs, which we had already decided was a kind of low meanness beneath even false surety.
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