Tag Archives: compassion

Compassion’s Hero

“This world is no place of rest,” Thomas Dent Mütter taught his students. “It is no place of rest, I repeat, but for effort. Steady, continuous undeviating effort.” 
— Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels (Mütter quoted, 301).

I am grateful

I remain grateful

The story of Thomas Mütter’s life as told by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz in Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, is one of compassion, intelligence and restless improvement. 19th century surgery was not for the faint of heart: neither for surgeon, patient nor reader!  And yet, what I remain in awe of is the human capacity to endure. It should be said that I write that as someone who knows excruciating and sustained pain. After all I have experienced natural childbirth in which the average length of my labors was around 27 hours (with my third child seriously undercutting the average by coming in at an “easy” ten hours—perhaps easy only to my mind by sheer comparison, but still, I remain ever so grateful).

So, I do know—one does what one must do. Yet still, it astounds me— the surgeries that men, women, and children endured; often without so much as a sip of wine.

“However, his declaration, that a surgeon would be ‘without pity,‘ is most fallacious, ” he told them firmly, “for surely there is no other profession, in the performance of the duties of which such frequent and urgent appeals are made to our sympathy, and he must be more than man—or worse than brute—who can contemplate unmoved, the agony and torture to which his patients are so often subjected.
No, gentlemen, I would say to you,
cultivate your sympathy, but learn to control it…” (237)

Thomas Mütter was, unfortunately, the rare man that let his humanity rule his morals. At a time when so many doctors treated patients as mere case studies, he treated them as brothers and sisters, no matter who they were in society’s eyes, no matter how monstrous their appearance. Perhaps due to his own status as an outsider, orphaned at a young age, alone in the classist world of 17th century Philadelphia, and suffering from his own life-long infirmities, his true empathy and kindness to his fellow human beings, whom he strove to help both physically and psychically, was in fact remarkable.

It is rather the sweetness of his character which I love most to recall; the kindness of his heart, which seldom allowed, even towards his enemies, an act of retaliation to escape him, and I believe his colleagues, in musing over his name, will have their feelings mellowed by a similar sort of retrospection” (Joseph Pancoast quoted 294).

So Pancoast, a fellow professor and doctor at Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania,  eulogized Mütter. But who were these said “enemies?” Incredibly, they were fellow practitioners who refused to accept the evidence of commutative diseases, (fifty years before germ theory, yes, but come on! deduction, dear Watson—the evidence, as some clearly saw and reported was apparent!), or who saw pain as some sort of divine retribution and so eschewed anesthesia—after just reading  some of the horrific yet amazing life saving and life-altering surgeries (Mütter was at the fore-front of what today is called cosmetic surgery: repairing cleft palates, restoring movement and normalcy to severe burn victims, inventing the eponymous ‘Mütter flap’ which enabled successful skin transplants, etcetera) it is difficult, in hindsight, to understand the reluctance, inertia of the status quo and arrogant hubris which compelled these men to prefer to see their patients in incomprehensible pain. The ubiquitous ability to divorce oneself from simple empathy can boggle and depress the mind. I need hardly mention the fact that a doctor could witness a surgery in which a woman who had sustained hideous burn injuries and then CHOSE (in order to once again be able to move her head or close her mouth) to undergo  restorative surgery in which she was essentially flayed while awake, sitting up and held down by a few men with barely a moan! barely a moan! that some of these same doctors could have the blinding audacity to declare women too weak to endure the rigors of being doctors themselves. It not only defies but enrages logic.

And yet, thanks to the sweet sun of each new day, we seem, ever so slowly to progress. Between all my children (mostly boys), I having naturally spent my fair share of hours in emergency rooms and I deeply appreciate the advances medicine has made and continues to make. We, as a species, are so fortunate to have among us compassionate and gifted people who labor ceaselessly for the greater good and who appreciate that the patient is somebody’s child, somebody’s parent. But I don’t think I am being cynical to wonder if a man like Edward Robinson Squibb (student of Mütter) who invented a way to make ether safe and then gave that discovery away for free to the world, would have any place in the corporation Bristol Myers Squibb that follows him.

I can’t help feeling that it is a shame on us all that such men are so remarkable. One can only hope for a day when Mütter’s ethic of compassion and progress is the norm. As a bit of history of the art of medicinal sciences, Aptowicz tells a fascinating and moving tale while also making plain that a man such as Thomas Mütter needs to be remembered, admired, and emulated. In the meantime, we endure.

Sins of Denial

The word “lie,” like the word “truth,” is banned in art, and during the normalization neither of them can be used (251). 

IMG_2587When writing fiction, an author strives to make a story feel real and true, the reader must believe. Breaking the suspension of disbelief with questions like, “could that have really happened?” is naturally to be avoided. Unfortunately, non-fiction never ceases to mercilessly move the goalpost of plausible truth. It is difficult to compete with the awful, endless absurdity that is reality.  Mariusz Szczygiel has rather brilliantly shown fiction to be a mere sliver of the horrors of non-fiction. Exhibit A, his brilliant book of creative non-fiction,  Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. 

2. not succumbing to idleness (so it is best to read, but with one reservation: DO NOT READ RUSSIAN NOVELS, says the slogan thought up by Bata and posted on the wall of the felting unit. Why not? Bata’s reply is on the wall of the rubber unit: RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE) (17-18).

Szczygiel collection of vignettes in dark, despairing humor give a history of Czechoslovakia through the 1900s. It is fascinating, heartbreaking, and puzzling. Whywhywhy? Totalitarianism is formidable in its exercise and precision of terror.  The truth that it is nearly impossible to be heroic under total surveillance is made plain- at best the sound of your soul squashing will be second guessed and dissected by future gawkers of history, further robbing it of meaning and complexity.

Beginning the book with the grand rise of  the Plato/Henry Ford-esque utopian entrepreneur Tomás Bata (legendary Czechoslovakian canvas shoe maker) sets the perfect tone to a tale of societal engineering gone so incomprehensibly wrong.

‘I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity’ (journalist Eda Kriseova quoted, 167).

The stories of various screen stars, writers, singers and artists coping with life under extremely unfunny and cruel conditions that are shoved down every Czech citizen’s throat with an arrogant “it’s good for you” attitude are just devastating. The people that don’t kill themselves, must distort themselves into, as Szcygiel makes beautiful reference to, cubist versions of themselves: broken up, disjointed, disconnected. And still, goodness knows why, but there are always the unflappable spirits among us:

Though haggard and deprived of a job, he is always happy about something. He says that in prison he sang arias from Wagner’s operas. (“And if I hadn’t ended up in there, it never would have occurred to me to sing.”) (235).

The style of Szczygiel’s prose perfectly accentuates his theme of human fragility coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and bureaucratic black humor that history endlessly doles out. That people even survive societies where intellectuals are imprisoned for being the enemy of the “working man” (what ever that actually means…) while pulp fiction is literally being pulped for the crime of corrupting the intellect of the working man, (say what?) is remarkable. Little that would give pleasure through escapism survived, 70%, Szczygiel reports, of all “trash” crime fiction, horror, thrillers, adventure, science fiction and romance novels were liquidated. All pleasurable fiction was to be replaced with “social-realist trash.” Because, why just live it, eh? Besides why would you want to escape? Are you a traitor? Unsurprisingly,  the reverberations live on. I have difficulty understanding the totalitarianism mind-set, but no difficulty at all fearing it.

“Oh, that’s Procházka’s writing. Take a look, I think he wrote something about The Ear there,” he says.
Yes, he did.
“This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible.” (director Karel Kachyna quoted, 145).

No doubt.

*Title from page 102: Taking note of linguistic details in the Czech Republic can offer clues. Thus, in situations where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
“THERE WAS NO TALK about it.”
“that WASN’T ASKED about.”
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.

I would only add that, it seems to me, “communism” in this context is a mutable term. It is fundamentalists of any kind for whom freedom of thought and human dignity is actively suppressed, violently or in more subtle forms of propaganda and dogmatic ideologies, that are a plague upon peace and compassion. Haven’t we fought this battle, didn’t others cover this ground? Perhaps, but it seems to me reckless to neglect stating that this proclivity for fundamentalism is very much a part of present current affairs in many places around the world. I can’t just gawk. And as history has shown, simply speaking is a lot.

** Gottland translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Expertise and its Exposé

Margarita recognized him immediately, she let out a moan, clasped her hands and ran to him. She kissed his forehead, his lips, pressed her face against his prickly cheek, and long pent-up tears streamed freely down her face. She uttered only one word, senselessly repeating it over and over, “You…you…you…”
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (243)


One of the many wonderful jokes in the book The Master and Margarita is the Devil’s inability to impress the good people of Moscow circa 1930 of his unsavory powers, poor Dear. Time and again he is assumed to be a German or an agent of some frightening official governmental agency- and really, what could be worse?

“Well,” the latter said pensively, “they are like people anywhere. They love money, but that has always been true…People love money, no matter what it is made of, leather, paper , bronze, or gold. And they are thoughtless…but, then again, sometimes mercy enters their hearts…they are ordinary people…On the whole, they remind me of their predecessors…only the housing shortage has had a bad effect on them.” (104)

Just so- as only a housing shortage can. I sympathize. In this reworking of Faust and Pontius Pilate, Bulgakov combines life’s most ordinary details with the theater of mystery. The eponymous Master and Margarita do not even enter the novel until about one hundred pages in, it’s the Devil’s work apparently to earn the respect of the already fearful, weary denizens of Russia and establish oneself as the cynosure. But, Satan, although necessary, never was the center and finally the heart of the story unfolds:

“Just like a murderer jumps out of nowhere in an alley, love jumped out in front of us and struck us both at once! The way lightening strikes, or a Finnish knife! She, by the way, would later say that it wasn’t like that, that we had, of course, loved each other for a very long time, without knowing or even having seen each other, and that she was living with another man…and I was then…with that…what’s her name…” (116)

A Finnish knife, I love that. The Devil is a magician and a consultant, a fair dealer that understands compassion, not to mention what is perhaps particularly devastating to human beings: when Margarita helps host Satan’s ball she is given the most sage advice:

And another thing: don’t ignore anyone! Give a little smile if you don’t have time for a word. Even the tiniest nod of your head will do. Anything you wish, but not indifference. That causes them to wither…” (224)

Bulgakov invariably speaks in code, leaving hints and tidbits throughout the novel to exact revenge, or poke fun at individuals, groups and even certain apartment buildings. Musical, literary and religious references abound, every number, name, and event is significant and adds to the fun of reading the book.

As it turns out we are, most of us, alike. Not even the Devil’s minions are immune to life’s humiliations- Trying to get seated at a restaurant frequented by writers, even they cannot escape the double whammy of bureaucratic harassment and artistic limitations:

“Are you writers?” asked the woman in turn.
“Of course we are,” replied Korovyov with dignity.
“May I see your ID’s” repeated the woman.
“My charming creature…” began Korovyoy, tenderly.
“I am not a charming creature,” interrupted the woman.
“Oh what a pity[…]But here is my point, in order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for ID? Just look at any five pages of any of his novels, and you will surely know, even without ID, that you are dealing with a writer[…]”
“You are not Dostoevsky.”

No, but Bulgakov understands and wants to say that the possibility exists, and the way is through mercy. In his novel, that is an area of agreement between both Satan and Jesus. Compassion is the key to art, to peace, and to life.

“Follow me, reader! Who ever told you there is no such thing in the world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and only me, and I’ll show you that kind of love!”

If we are going to be followers, we might as well follow the love.

*Title from page 100-101, The Devil (as the magician Mr. Woland) is introduced onto the stage- “And so, since we all applaud both expertise and its exposé, let us welcome Mr. Woland!”

*Thanks to the wonderfully named tumblr blog wordskillunltd for the recommendation.