Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Much Rain Wears the Marble

I had just missed the bus, I know that now –but so had she, the little woman sitting by herself in the tiny shelter. It was an almost-dark evening in April, and I had walked for a few blocks along a darkened, tree-lined street because there was no shelter at the previous bus stop. It was perhaps a silly thing to do, but I didn’t fancy just standing in the cold. It was also raining heavily, so I took refuge under the first bus shelter I found. It had a low plastic roof and a small bench occupied by a middle aged woman. She glanced at me suspiciously and then buried her neck in her long black coat, staring motionlessly at her lap. Strands of long damp hair had escaped her blue woolen hat in places and hung limply on her shoulder like bits of tangled string. Although she was seated and trying to wrap herself like a package in her coat, her eyes made quick sorties in my direction -and even quicker retreats whenever I met them on their journey.

I could tell she was frightened, so I tried to stay near the edge of the shelter, but the fury of the rain pounding on the thin plastic roof soon drove me nearer to the bench. I smiled to put her more at ease, but the movement of my lips seemed to terrify her even more, and I could see her moving ever closer to the edge, ready to run if I so much as moved again. And yet, however uncomfortable, we were both trapped.

It seemed, though, that the longer I stood there, the more nervous she was becoming, so I decided to say something –anything- to reassure her.

“Sorry,” I started, “I’d wait outside, but the rain…” Her face almost disappeared inside the up-turned collar of her coat. Perhaps with the noise of the rain, she’d thought I was trying to flirt with her… I tried again. “Did we both just miss the bus…?” I suppose it didn’t sound very matter-of-fact, but it was hard to use a normal tone of voice to compete with the ferocity of the wind gusts and the incessant drumming of the rain. If she heard me, she was obviously too frightened to reply.

The wind was picking up and I was getting lashed with turbulent eddies of rain where I was standing, so I decided to sit on the opposite end of the bench she had clearly hoped would be hers alone. I had been carrying a cloth shopping bag with some take-out food I’d picked up for a late dinner, so I carefully placed it between the two of us like a wall. She was obviously at the extreme end of what little bench remained and I saw her eyes enlarge like a frightened doe as my bag seemed to close the distance.

I didn’t really know what to do; we both felt uneasy, so I decided to look away. Stare down the dark road, maybe -the bus shouldn’t be that far away. I raised my arm to look at my watch and I saw her flinch out of the corner of my eye. Things were getting serious.

“Listen,” I said, looking straight at where her face should have been, but seeing, instead, a knife. It was a tiny, dirty-looking folding knife, to be sure, but it startled me all the same. “I’m sorry I frightened you, but I’m just waiting for the bus…” I tried to sound calm.

She fastened two saucer-sized eyes on me so quickly I had to blink. They examined my soaked jeans, and then my equally sodden rain jacket. I wondered if perhaps it was the hood that had frightened her, so I slipped it off my head and smiled again. But her expression was still wary, still on guard -and so was the hand that held the little knife.

I shrugged, hoping to let her see I meant no harm, and yet she watched my every move like a wolf trying to estimate the threat I posed. I could have overpowered her easily, had she threatened me, but there was something about her excessive fear that tugged at me. It was more than fright, more than simple misgivings -it was terror. I wondered whether it was the way I was dressed, the isolation of the bus stop, or maybe a mental health issue. It was hard to judge anything about her appearance in the dim light, but who carries a knife to a bus stop?

The hand holding it shook slightly, but her fingers were so thin and boney I suspected she was unwell. “Are you okay, ma’am?” I asked, but gently, and only when I felt I could sit back against the thin wall of the shelter without alarming her further.

For a moment, she turned her whole head towards me, and it seemed as if she was going to answer me, but she merely blinked, and the movement of her lips faded. Her face, and what I could see of her neck, was as gaunt as her fingers, her cheeks hollow, and her lips cracked and unhealthy looking. The coat was clearly too large for her, but I don’t think that’s what made me sad. It was more her eyes: they seemed too large for her face –or rather, her face appeared to have shrunk around them.

I could see some tiny headlights far down the road, and I put my hands on my lap where she could see them. The bus would be here in a moment anyway. “Are you hungry?” I said –the words just sort of appeared at my lips and slipped out before I could think much about them.

She seemed surprised, and her eyes briefly softened, before going back on guard. I could see the knife shaking more now, as she watched for any trick I might be playing. But I caught the quick glance at my shopping bag, although I pretended not to notice.

“It’s not much, but there’s some take-out stuff in there…” I felt almost silly saying that, because the smell of Chinese food had hardly been dampened by the wet bag. “Oh, and there’s some veggies, and…” To tell the truth, I had forgotten what I had bought -or maybe I was embarrassed at what I had to offer.

Her eyes were beacons now, and her face had somehow moulded around them. There were only eyes, in fact, until they blinked. And, as the almost empty bus pulled up, I thought I saw a tear in one of them.

I left the bag on the bench, but she sat motionless and watched me get on the bus, watched me sit in the window seat, and as the bus began to pull away, I saw her mouth move and her hand wave before she reached for it.

I’m sorry now that I hadn’t bought anything more nourishing that night. Something more worthy for a gift…

 

Zealandia?

Sometimes things are not as they seem and we see, as the biblical Paul wrote, ‘through a glass darkly’. Sometimes there is more than meets the eye; it is what makes the world so interesting. Maybe it’s why we wrap gifts –or give them, for that matter. They are such stuff as dreams are made on…

I have always loved New Zealand; to me, it is a gift, and so is what I’ve recently learned about its origins. To think that Aotearoa –the land of the long white cloud- is more than the ribbon I can see today, more than the Maori seafarers could see even a thousand years ago when they first arrived, is astonishing, and not a little intriguing. An article in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/17/zealandia-pieces-finally-falling-together-for-long-overlooked-continent?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other) reports on a paper published in GSA Today -the journal of the Geological Society of America: ‘Zealandia covers nearly 5m square km, of which 94% is under water, and encompasses not only New Zealand but also New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Lord Howe Island group and Elizabeth and Middleton reefs. The area, about the same size as the Indian subcontinent, is believed to have broken away from Gondwana – the immense landmass that once encompassed Australia – and sank between 60m and 85m years ago.’

Of course, even with satellite-derived bathymetric data, it’s hard to appreciate. And the skeptics, largely silent in their apathy, still sit in the shadows wondering what difference knowing  this  makes. After all, it’s almost all underwater, some of it way underwater –one edge of it ‘can be placed where the oceanic abyssal plains meet the base of the continental slope, at water depths between 2500 and 4000 m below sea level.’ http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/27/3/article/GSATG321A.1.htm Would we be any the worse, the unimpressed might argue, if this remained undetected? Would the ignorance handicap us in some way? Any way…?

In the conclusion to the paper, the authors assert that: ‘As well as being the seventh largest geological continent Zealandia is the youngest, thinnest, and most submerged. The scientific value of classifying Zealandia as a continent is much more than just an extra name on a list. That a continent can be so submerged yet unfragmented makes it a useful and thought-provoking geodynamic end member in exploring the cohesion and breakup of continental crust.’ But it seems to me that questioning the value of this discovery misses the point entirely. Misses, perhaps, the point of gifts and the wrapping in which they are concealed.

Although I am now retired, I am reminded of something that happened late in my career as a gynaecologist and which continues to intrigue me. It makes me wonder just how many other assumptions limit our vision…

Sometimes in medicine, we feel the need to step back from the fray, to attempt an objectivity denied to those whom we treat. It allows us, we explain, to adopt another, more reasoned perspective -one which is unadulterated by their pain and emotion. ‘A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom’ as Hamlet said.

And yet, looking out from the forest of my age, I realize that sometimes people don’t want to be treated as patients, but as people. Fellow travelers. What they want is a knowledgeable friend, not a textbook to which they can turn. One has to learn to gauge the needs…

Jean was not a new patient, but her visits were erratic and unpredictable. Sometimes it was for a pap smear, but more frequently it was for what she would only characterize as an ‘infection’ –“The usual one,” she would inevitably add with an embarrassed laugh. But neither I, nor any of the other doctors she had seen were ever able to find the infection, so it had become a sort of standing challenge as to who would find it first.

Jean was a very fit woman then in her early fifties, who taught both English and drama at a nearby high school. Meticulous about her appearance, I would see her in the waiting room sitting bolt upright, shoulders back, head perched on her shoulders like it was suspended on fine wires to keep it from despoiling the immaculately dressed body below. Her hair was brown and short with each strand assigned an immoveable location lest it be chastened with the brush she kept on her lap in a little purse.

That day, however, I noticed she had added another weapon to the arsenal on her lap –a little pump action plastic bottle, the content of which she would surreptitiously spray on her hands from time to time, followed by a vigorous rubbing as if she had just applied some soothing lotion.

She smiled when she saw me and extended a just-sprayed hand in greeting. “I think I’ve solved my problem, doctor,” she said as soon as we were settled in my office. “I just wanted you to check and see if there was any difference –you know, down…” She blushed before she could finish her sentence. She immediately produced the little bottle and sprayed her hands again. “No infection,” she added, regaining her composure after the little entr’acte.

“And the little bottle?” I had to ask.

“Sanitizer,” she answered proudly. “It’s antibacterial,” she added, and dived into the purse to read the label to me. “It contains triclosan… For some reason it’s really  hard to get nowadays.” Her face suggested that puzzled her. “I mean it kills bacteria doesn’t it? And they’re the troublemakers…”

I suppressed a sigh and sat back in my chair. “It also encourages bacterial resistance, Jean. And it doesn’t seem to be any more effective at cleaning than good old soap and water.”

She blinked, but whether in surprise, or disbelief I couldn’t tell. “But…” She gathered her thoughts before continuing. “We pick up bacteria from our environment and dirty hands are how we transmit a lot of diseases. We have to keep them clean… Bacteria” –she said it as if the word itself were dirty- “Bacteria are everywhere.” She pointed to an alcohol-based hand sanitizer I kept on my desk. “And I see you don’t take any chances either. ”She relaxed in her chair as if she’d proved her point.

I allowed myself the sigh I had avoided earlier. “An interesting dichotomy, isn’t it?” She raised an eyebrow. “That we live in a world jam-packed with so many bacteria that they are virtually ubiquitous…” I continued, “…and yet so few cause us trouble.”

“But…” She leaned forward on her seat.

“But we seem to want to malign them all; we act as if they were all our enemies. And yet, our own microbiome –the bacteria living in our intestines- are absolutely essential for our health in ways we are just discovering. And apparently the number of bacteria normally living in and on a healthy human body outnumber our own cells by ten to one.” I stopped and smiled at her incredulous expression. “We –our cells- are only the tip of the iceberg.”

I suppose I thought I’d just be reminding her of something she already knew, but her eyes were saucers. “Zealandia,” she said after a moment’s reflection.

“Pardon me?” I’d never heard the word, and wondered whether she was referring to the title of some obscure novel she was teaching at school.

“Zealandia,” she repeated as if she were surprised I didn’t recognize the term. “You know, doctor, the continental landmass of which New Zealand is a part? It’s 95% underwater so you can’t see it and therefore don’t appreciate it’s importance. We usually only judge what we can see, don’t we…?” she added with a wink and a big winning smile.

We all have our blind spots.