Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23. It became a literary sensation, though she was already suffering from rheumatic fever and would live most of her remaining life handicapped by a series of strokes. She wrote most often of love, loneliness, and empathy for the human condition.
I haven’t written a philosophical post in a while. Maybe because I’d done enough public searching for meaning in the first years. Maybe because so many read the blog now. And sometimes when I am busy, meaning is lost in the day to day of clinical medicine. In pain, addiction, success, coping, transcendence…but mostly pain, loss, and suffering. That is what people bring to me on a daily basis. And of all my elixirs to offer the most powerful is empathy.
Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.
A psychiatrist’s job is a strange one. I sit with people as they cry. I try to sort out the influences of biological and psychologic pathology. I attempt to buttress the strengths and soothe and repair the weaknesses. And I never know what will happen, though I may have seen a similar patient walk through my door a hundred times, say a middle aged man drinking twelve beers a day. One of them gets worse, loses his family, the next one finds his path, quits drinking, and yet another sticks with six beers a day from here on out. Ten thousand variables walk in with every patient and we try to predict the possibilities.
It was funny, too, how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.
I hate people, sometimes, their selfishness and my own. Our weakness and blindness. The mistakes we make over and over. And I love people, as they push through. It is a great gift that they will share with me all these daily despairs and victories. Sometimes I wish I could be more specific, but another part of my job is the vault of secrets, whether they are fantastic or heart wrenching.
One of the things I struggled with, initially, was a great sense of loneliness. Here I was with so many psychiatrists dismayed by my elixirs and not entirely sure the answer could be found by reading enough Kohut, Winnicot, or Freud. But the blogosphere is plentiful, the world of interested people almost limitless, despite the limitations of the medium and the egos and the foolishness.
I do not have any home. So why should I be homesick?
Our brittle weaknesses almost always come from places of pain. If someone is arrogant, outrageous, narcissistic, or lost, or too easily hurt…at the heart of it is insecurity and the ever-present pain. And where does the wish for finding some truth in the evolutionary medicine come from but dismay and pain? How many people have I seen die from heart disease or complications of diabetes? How many disabled from multiple sclerosis or lupus? And then the daily complaints of fatigue, depression, or constipation. I have few cures and far more questions to ask.
The modern human race is a dysfunctional, limping family with awesome powers of energy and information. Here on the interweb we strike out and rant and rave and post pictures of our cats.
It was like they waited to tell each other things that had never been told before. What she had to say was terrible and afraid. But what he would tell her was so true that it would make everything all right.
When I sit with people who are dying, they tell me of their families. Their children and lives, and the people they meet on the street, and the color of the air at their favorite summer place. And when I sit with people who are living, they speak of the same, but hardly ever mention the color of the air.
Pain is the currency of my profession. For all doctors, perhaps, and all nurses. The rants, always, the raves, sometimes, and rarely, we hear about the cat pictures, which are, of course, the most important things. When you go out tomorrow try to remember to notice the colors in the sky and the crispness of the wind, because within those small details are serenity. The past is gone, the future is not here. The present is all we will ever hold and experience.
I’m a stranger in a strange land.
I am filled with stories, with sorrows and secrets. Carson McCullers knew these things at 23, and I am much older yet am still figuring them out. When do you call out the brutes, the proud, and the misguided? When do you succor their misery? What is the greater good? Is it silence and a smiling face, or a bitter cut, or perhaps manipulating a character weakness to serve a common end.
Some will benefit from the succor, others the cut. Some won’t learn, ever, and can only serve the good with the benign manipulation. All the terrible and glorious people and their ten thousand variables.
The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.
It seems like a long time ago that I wrote The Glorious Cause. And I still believe in it, that we have to move forward with open minds, honest skepticism, and a common respect for each other, for science, and for human health. But there are no seekers without flaws, no truths without pain, and no consensus without compromises. The question is are the compromises we make and the new friends we keep worth the cost? Each day those variables change, and the question differs, and the air carries a new scent and a new hue.
We learn so much when we go to those places that cause us pain, yet it sticks to us like glue, and we cannot be free, and we make the same foolish mistakes when we are beset by pain. I hope we can transcend and write and learn and move forward and break through. I hope we can do such a thing together, brute, nerd, narcissist, seeker, mother, warrior, and all the elements of the human family.
Perhaps we cannot get along. Perhaps the compromises we make are not honorable or worthy enough. Perhaps we are too small, too vulnerable, to make it work. That is the human condition, and it is not shameful.
I will not be hurried…kindly allow me to sit in peace a moment.
Every day we are dying. And every moment we live. Every moment there is an opportunity for weakness or triumph or love or serenity. Everything risks pain except perhaps serenity, and that may be why it is the nirvana of choice in lieu of happiness for the wise. The heart is a lonely hunter. We know so little, and expect so much.