Infirm of Purpose

Conscience is a difficult master, and although few would argue the need for one, I suspect that most would agree that at times it may be hard to obey. As my mother used to say, it’s why guilt was invented.

Society seems to assign great worth to those of us who are able to resist the temptations in which we swim -those of us who emerge dry on the beach I think. We owe a lot of the anxiety we wear to our prevailing ethos, to struggling against a current which would tire even a saint . Indeed, the Christian concept of Saintliness usually implies a rare, single-handed ability to resist the allure of the everyday world.

And the failure to do so, despite our best attempts, often leads to remorse and regret -the unforgiving parents of guilt. But maybe we expect too much of the individual, maybe there’s a better way of looking at the problem. An enlightening article in Aeon made me wonder if Society -and my mother- had borrowed a little too much character-centered virtue from the Greeks: https://aeon.co/essays/aztec-moral-philosophy-didnt-expect-anyone-to-be-a-saint

I suppose in her day, you took what medicine you were given, never expecting there to be credible alternatives. Western virtue ethics -although she probably wouldn’t have recognized the term- were in part the result of the teachings of Plato, and eventually his pupil Aristotle. They believed in what the article calls character-centred virtues, but these were ‘too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices.’

However, the Aztecs –the people dominant in large parts of central America prior to the 16th-century Spanish conquest- looked at virtue from a different perspective which the author of the article, Sebastian Purcell -assistant professor of philosophy at SUNY-Cortland in New York- describes as a more socially-centred ethic. The Aztecs apparently believed ‘we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.’

And he raises a good point: ‘This distinction bears on an important question: just how bad are good people allowed to be? Must good people be moral saints, or can ordinary folk be good if we have the right kind of support? … it also matters for questions of inclusivity. If being good requires exceptional traits, such as practical intelligence, then many people would be excluded – such as those with cognitive disabilities…  One of the advantages of the Aztec view, then, is that it avoids this outcome by casting virtue as a cooperative, rather than an individual, endeavour.’

I like the idea that everything doesn’t rest on my shoulders alone. That there may be communal resources around to raise bail.

Exercise is a similar taskmaster to conscience, however, yet it wields even more guilt than my mother ever could. And it’s not on my shoulders that it rests -I could probably take that for a while; it seems to pick on my legs and anything that tires easily. But when my joints are talkative and my muscles are already weary from standing around, temptations are convincing liars -especially when I think I can get away with them. Know I can. Okay, am pretty sure I can…

For some reason, a grey and stormy autumn afternoon a few years ago comes to mind. I was living outside a little rural village then, and rain was lashing the roof like a Bollywood monsoon. The windows were shaking with the constant slap of discarded leaves from the dancing trees that surrounded the house, and I remember looking forward to sitting in a comfortable chair with some cookies and a book. It wasn’t that I was tired or anything, but it was certainly better than risking the storm outside.

Sometimes, on a sunless day, discretion has to win out, don’t you think? And I thought that maybe peanut butter chocolate chip cookies would go a long way to expiating any residual guilt for not getting any exercise that day. Retirement was fairly new at that point, but sometimes you have to practice filing away the hours efficiently before they get out of hand and mess things up.

I’d already let the dog out into the back yard a few hours before the storm hit. He had a little house back there and lots of grass to putter around in so I figured he’d be fine. I even peeked through the door at him to make sure, before I assembled the cookies on my favourite plate and turned on the light over the chair. I mean, sometimes dogs just know they’re not going to be walked, eh? And just like us, they don’t always need it. Besides, I could exculpate myself by giving him a few treats later -he’s so easily placated.

Anyway, I remember settling into my chair with a niggle of guilt that even the cookies were unable to dissipate. It wasn’t so much about the dog, I don’t think –he’s pretty good at forgiveness- but I’m still a work in progress, and torpor tends to make me logy and bloated. Anyway, when the plate was almost empty and the book still unopened, I decided that perhaps a bit of wine might help.

I didn’t wake up until I heard the scratching. At first I thought it was just the wind, but when I opened my eyes and looked around, I realized the rain had stopped and there was a bit of sun peeking through the kitchen window. Time for supper maybe…?

The scratching was persistent, however, and coming from the door -coming from the dog, actually. Interesting, I thought -he doesn’t usually scratch- and I opened the door expecting him to come bounding in. But he just sat there, tail wagging, and eyes pleading. I knew what he wanted; dogs talk with their eyes, communicate with their bodies. They have no need for words, and as soon as I reached for the leash, he thanked me with his tail. I reciprocated by offering him the only cookie I hadn’t eaten and we set out together to explore the world -guilt a distant memory, and my mother smiling from wherever…

But I need to be sure. A dog can exhibit social virtue can’t it? A dog can help -I mean, I can still be an Aztec, right?

 

 

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Time Enough

Time, the faceless tyrant that rules our lives like an absentee landlord, is so abstract, so opaque, it is difficult to grasp. It is seeing through a glass, darkly if at all. Enslaving everything within its reach it is an impartial despot. Dispassionate in its all-embracing realm, we are each of us imprisoned and there is nothing outside the bars.

Time is an aloof conqueror with no interest in our supplications, no ear for our protests, and no concern with how we define it, measure it, embrace it. It simply is, whether or not we choose to acknowledge its existence.

And yet the question of its perception has always intrigued me. Is Time truly an owner and we, powerless and abused, its hapless chattel? Or are we merely imprisoned by perspective -glasses half empty? But as we continue to drain the glass, there is an increasingly vexing thought: what is it we have drunk?

*

The patient population that are sent to see me seems to have aged over the years I’ve been in practice -or, more likely, the referring physicians have aged as well, and the phone number of my office surfaces easily in their heads, like habits, traditions -Canon law instituted in a more insecure epoch in their careers. But the accretion of age around me is instructive: I am more aware than ever of the differences in our apprehension of Time. Our repudiation or acceptance of its influence in our lives.

Nora was an interesting example of time-obsession. I say ‘was’, because I saw and treated her a few years ago and she has never returned to see me; I like to think it’s because she had no further need, but I fear the worst. A silver haired woman in her late eighties, she sat solid as a post in the waiting room, absorbed, it seemed at first, with inner thoughts. And yet, as I stood behind the front desk attending to another task, I noticed her eyes darting about the room like bees investigating a busy field –alighting first on a child crawling on the floor then moving on to a bright but enigmatic picture hanging near the door. A woman busily turning pages of a magazine near the window was next, and then the little boy playing noisily and impatiently with a smartphone waiting for his pregnant mother to return from the washroom down the hall –little escaped Nora’s scrutiny, and yet she was a statue. Nothing else about her moved. Her black, floor-length dress might have been painted on, the golden bracelet around one of the wrists that rested in her lap was still and as yet ungleaming. Even her face was a calm mask revealing nothing –the only hint of serenity in the busy room. A place of refuge in the roiling world.

She was no different in the office at first. She sat quietly in the chair across from my desk and unleashed her eyes again to explore the room, the furniture, and then, almost as an after thought, me. “The terracotta lady in the corner…” She turned her whole body to stare at the sculpture as if her head and neck were welded to her shoulders as a unit. “…It has some coins scattered around it.” She turned once again to look at me, this time disapprovingly. “Am I supposed to feed it?”

It was an effigy of a woman with a begging bowl that someone had given me and it was beginning to accumulate coins for some reason. I smiled and shook my head. “I meant it as an ornament for an otherwise boring corner but…” I shrugged to indicate the coins were merely accidents.

“Guilt is something I outgrew years ago, doctor,” she said with obvious concern that the the terracotta lady and her bowl were put there to supplement my income.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to reply, but her eyes seemed intent on interrogating my face. “Time smoothes things out, doesn’t it?” It was a trite comment and I’m not sure why I even said it, but her expression changed immediately.

“After all my years, do you think it cares how I feel?” This time I decided to say nothing; she seemed angry about something. “We are its slaves, after all…”

“Slaves?” I thought maybe allowing her to vent would enable me to ask her why she thought she’d been sent to me. I’d read the referral letter, of course, but patients often understand things differently from their doctors.

She stared at me as if I were a little slow. “You wouldn’t understand, doctor. A woman is a slave to many things, and Time is no exception.” Her eyes continued to crawl along my face looking for a reason to continue their search. Finally, they returned to their home and she shrugged, as if the territory they had explored was not a threat. “Think about it,” she started carefully, the words slowly assembling inside her mouth. “Most of our lives we are calendars, ticking the months off from period to period, our hopes and fears captive to whether or not it arrives on time, our lives inextricably entwined with its schedule.”

I have to say, that the obvious is sometimes invisible –or at least disguised and camouflaged in the background. I hadn’t thought of the exigencies of Time on a woman being recorded like that.

“Males,” she continued, “are not subject to the same calendar. Time passes, for sure, but there is usually no need for it to be regimented in little orderly blocks. It is a different animal for you…” Her face softened and her eyes stopped moving. “Still a demon, perhaps, still unkind, but less constantly in your face.” She sighed, but visibly. Audibly. “It is a different Time.”

I wasn’t certain what to make of her idea –wasn’t certain how to turn the conversation towards the reason she had been sent to see me- but I was fascinated all the same. Maybe how we perceive the allotment, the measuring stick, changes something. She had been sent to me for the investigation of vaginal bleeding –abnormal and unexpected bleeding, to be sure, but nonetheless it was a calendar waved in her face once more. Something she had thought was long destroyed, was back to plague her yet again. As Hawthorne said, ‘Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.’

Well, I suppose it does… but I am rather more drawn to the view of Rabindranath Tagore: ‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’

I hope that Nora did, as well.