HARVARD DIARY
Vulnerability

November 1991By Robert Coles



In recent months, as I believe readers of this magazine were told, I suffered a good deal of back pain. I am a physician, but have always been loath to visit any of my colleagues, and I have never been one to take medicine with any relish. My parents, mildly puritanical, were also stoics: Pain is part of life. My Dad regarded even that all-purpose staple of American life, aspirin, as something to be resisted. My Mother, too, had no interest in frequenting drug stores, and when a doctor came or wrote her a prescription, I remember, she used to keep it on her desk a good long while, before making the decision to throw out the piece of paper or take it to the pharmacist. If she chose to do the latter, we always knew she was quite ill. When doctors offered either of my parents pain-killers, toward the end of their lives (both of them died five years ago in their 80s), they were inclined to want something "not so strong," a phrase I recall my Mom using when a doctor, sensing her acute pain, wanted to help with codeine. The very word sent her reeling back to virtues of aspirin, virtues I'd never before heard her celebrate.

This past year I began to realize, yet again, how much I was their son as I, too, was offered a variety of pain-killers, only to shun them. What I received, as a reward for such a posture of long-suffering self-control, unassisted by modern medicine, was not only plenty of pain, but a sense of vulnerability that had its own instructive impact on my sense of things, on my way of being. Now, the world seemed less inviting: Now, I had to be more tentative both in how I moved, and, more broadly, in what I regarded as possible, even desirable -- and the latter (what we regard as within our capacities) often follow the former (what we, in and out, can manage to do), a testimony to our ability to accommodate ourselves psychologically to the physical reality of lives. In no time, I was watching my step, as the saying goes, both figuratively and literally -- and in so doing, so being, I was becoming all too concerned with myself, a kind of self-consciousness, if not self-centeredness, I had also learned from my parents to struggle against with all my might.

Under such circumstances, I turned to certain stories for relief -- for some instructive reminders about human frailty and vulnerability: what we might try to do or have to do redemptively, we who are fated to find ourselves in that kind of condition. I read both Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich," and his "Master and Man" several times -- indeed, began to think of the central figures in those stories as my comrades. I was not mortally ill, as was the case with the lawyer Ilyich, nor was I about to die in a fierce snowstorm, a central occurrence in "Master and Man," but an ailing back had curbed me -- taken away many of the rhythms and motions of life that keep us so properly busy, and, no doubt, amount to an important and fulfilling part of our overall achievements as the particular persons we are. Yet, much that keeps us occupied, if not preoccupied, is mere busy-work -- distractions meant to help dissuade us from thinking about what really matters, what we believe to be truly significant. Entire lives (as many of us know, as Tolstoy reminded us, and in the essay "Confession" reminded himself) can be given over to such earnest evasions of moral and psychological introspection.

No wonder, then, that an illness can generate enormous apprehension -- as one youth I came to know years ago (1970) in rural West Virginia let me know while he lay in bed, partially paralyzed in consequence of an injury sustained while working (even though he was only 14) in a strip mine: "I'll be here, lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, or looking out the window -- yonder, to the hill. I get to thinking. I wonder why I was ever born -- if there was a reason. To end up like I am now? I wonder if it makes any difference if anyone is ever born! I mean, a hundred years from now, we'll all be gone, and if anyone has any idea who we are, it'll be because he stumbled on a grave, or he saw a picture in someone's scrapbook, like I do sometimes when Grandpappy comes visiting, and he shows me his Grandpappy.


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