Physician, Heal Thyself
Doctors are more likely to kill themselves, or become alcoholics or drug addicts, than those who belong to any other profession — a sad and instructive piece of information. I first heard such observations — and the statistics that go with them — being recited when I was a medical student. Even then I’d begun to notice some further ironies, variations on the same theme: pediatricians who spent a lot of time with their young patients, to the point that their own children missed them terribly; somewhat overweight internists who told their hypertensive and obese patients how important it was to lose weight; and not at all to be overlooked, psychiatrists who impressed many of us as being quite odd, if not loony.
For a long time I tried to forget such puzzling aspects of medical reality — or, I’d remind myself that we are all limited, if not flawed, in various ways, doctors included, and so my very surprise at what I was seeing bespoke a naïve utopianism at work: the notion that the choice of a particular profession would in some fashion provide a degree of psychological and moral perfection otherwise unobtainable.
When I was a boy I had been taught fifth grade by a teacher, Bernicia Avery, who ought to have cured me of such naïveté. Every day she shared with us her great and abiding obsession — how hard it was for our conduct to match our professional ideals. She put it in this unremarkable manner — drew upon, actually, a commonplace saying: “Try hard to practice what you preach.” The first three words, of course, were her rather interesting modification of that old saying. She knew how difficult it can be for any of us, no matter how well intentioned, to achieve the lofty congruence of stated rhetoric with everyday behavior.
I recall the clever question of one of my young classmates; she asked Miss Avery one day whether those who don’t preach really have any reason to be worried — since, after all, they are not hypocrites. Miss Avery was a bit surprised, I still remember, but she soon had thought out her response — to the effect that we are all preachers in our particular ways, and so there is no escaping the moral mandate of that aphorism, which she had put on a rather large piece of cardboard, pinned on the wall behind her desk. (Often she stood up, pointed at the words on the cardboard and asked us, as a class, to recite them!)
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