Thursday, March 3, 2011

Brother's Keeper

East of Eden has been on my mind. At the heart of that novel is chapter 34, two pages, 11 paragraphs. The lesson of the entire masterpiece is here.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well - or ill?
Joel Salatin did a recent TED talk linked on an Ancestral Health Blog website found via Brent Pottenger's twitter feed - I tweeted the video to good response last week or so. It's 16 minutes and definitely worth the time - the moral as it were happens at 11 minutes. Joel urges us to live with intention. Not to sleepwalk through life. "If we devote ourselves to sacredness in our vocations, the world will rise to meet us." He talks of a "nobility of personal ministry." He is a religious person, but if you are not religious, the same tenets apply. Happiness is not giddiness and success per se, but rather serenity and intention, if one has a view looking East.

Steinbeck again from Chapter 34:
In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try to live so that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
Dr. Eades brushed up against this one story in his last post, The Big Lie, about the folks still clinging to the high glycemic and low glycemic carbohydrates as some sort of last vestige of the diet-heart hypothesis. Some objected in the comments to the reference to Nazis, but how many people have to die a slow disabling death due to these diseases of Western Civilization before the body count is high enough to be evil, and not just incompetence and bad advice? I do not suggest that the evil of a horrific systematic and deliberate extermination is occuring - but when one breaks it down to the first story, perhaps the only story, there is good, and there is evil. Inaction, obtuseness, and neglect from those who choose to be doctors and scientists - pardonable for how long, decades into this latest epidemic of obesity and diabetes and depressive disorders?

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virture, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
Most of the time I have more questions and answers. Sometimes the correct path is not clear, or there is no correct path. I would not presume to suggest a specific pattern of virtue to you or anyone, other than to begin with respect for oneself, and one's person. I believe the wise path is to live your days with intention, to do what you love and respect what you do, but of couse in this I do not always succeed.

But if you choose to be a doctor, you choose to be your brother's keeper. The exact line of paternalism vs autonomy is always being redrawn, but one mustn't check one's expertise and brain at the door in service of the party line of the grain or pharmaceutical industry.


  1. Brilliant, I really needed to read this today. I've been somewhat sleepwalking the last few weeks in a state of inertia and suspended animation!

    Thank you, your posts are an inspiration to me and a relief to know that there are professionals out there who are thinking. May the waves of the pebbles you are dropping in the pond continue to ripple outward.


  2. I am not a doctor, but as an acupuncturist, I think of my role as "allied health professional," and in that vein very much appreciated your last paragraph! The impulse to care for, or be your brother's keeper, is as old as our species - perhaps older. The various types of training we receive can constrain, but never fully contain, that impulse.

  3. Emily -

    It was so nice to meet you today. I read this post and look forward to reading more of your blog. I'm now following you. Here's the link to mine:

    Maureen McCormick, Ph.D.

  4. Hi Emily. Jered Morgan here, author of the Ancestral Health Blog you referenced in this post. Thanks for mentioning it. My traffic has gone sky high! Form 10-15 views a day to over sixty today! Now I know what everyone means by the phrase "The Deans Bump"!

    All joking aside, I'm so glad to have discovered a Psychiatrist who takes the paleolithic view. I'm sure you're aware of Julia Ross' work? I've used most of her protocols to amazing effect, and have counseled people to do so also, witnessing similar results.

    I'd love to have you out here for our Kirkland Health Fair one year. We've got a great thing going.

    All the best, and I look forward to more great posts.


  5. Hi Emily,

    Your thoughts on virtue and intention reminded me of 'The Happiness Hypothesis' by Jonathan Heidt. I first saw reference to the book on Dr. Eades blog. If you haven't read it, I hope you will take a look at Dr Eades 'review' of the book. I find myself thinking of the book often, and you just made me think of it once again.


  6. Thank you for this wonderful essay, Emily. I particularly like the line, "But if you choose to be a doctor, you choose to be your brother's keeper." Patients trust doctors to give them correct advice on matters of life and death. If you dispense advice under those circumstances, you are assuming an enormous responsibility.


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