When I first moved to Albany several months ago in pursuit of the exciting and glamorous life of a clinical ethics fellow, I brought with me only a handful of my earthly possessions; if the Fates have their way with me, I will likely leave with even less.
During this past month, in the late-night hours one night I awoke from my slumber to discover that while I had slept the majority of my basement apartment had been transformed into a bog. Yes, I was experiencing wintery real-life application of the law of thermal expansion as it applies to dihydrogen monoxide (i.e., a water pipe burst). After an emergency call to my landlord, I proceeded with my own separation of sheep from goats: what could be saved and salvaged was transported to the little dry land remaining in my now water-logged kingdom, while those items clearly destined to doom and decay were left languishing amidst the advancing liquid army. Few of my books survived, but among them was one I thought quite fitting to the circumstances: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Essential reading for any good Stoic (and, to my mind, useful if not essential reading for all human beings), Meditations, and the ancient words of wisdom it contains, helped me to navigate through and reflect upon my experience of the flood and its corresponding aftermath. Some choice morsels include:
Casting aside other things, hold to the precious few; and besides bear in mind that every man lives only the present, which is an indivisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or is uncertain. Brief is man’s life and small the nook of earth where he lives… (Book III, Number 10)
But among the things readiest to hand to which you should turn, let there be these two: One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; so our perturbations come only from our inner opinions. The other is that all the things you see around you change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion. (Book IV, Number 3)
Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered. (Book IV, Number 35)
“I am unhappy, because this has happened to me.” Not so: say, “I am happy, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.” For such a thing as this might have happened to every man; but every man would not have continued free from pain on such an occasion. Why then is that rather a misfortune than this a good fortune? (Book IV, Number 49)
One of the main life lessons Marcus Aurelius (and indeed all stoics) reiterates time and again is that the essential nature of our human existence is flux and fleetingness. Another is that our ability to respond to this flux and fleetingness, and how we choose to respond, constitute a great human power and our capacity for nobility. Our ability to bear the small things – minor losses of time, possessions, or our sense of control – help to prepare us for the inevitable big things with which we will one day be faced. The major losses.
I sometimes think that one of the most valuable things we can do as clinical ethicists is to help people – patients, families, physicians, etc. – with these particular life lessons. For many, the hospital experience is the epitome of flux, the reason for hospitalization a reminder of life’s fleetingness. Whatever the official reason for requesting an ethics consultation, minor and major losses are always there, whether in the present situation or looming on the horizon. We are consulted, I believe, in large part to help people bear these losses.
And this becomes another part of my meditation: that this experience, and indeed each of my experiences, has the potential to become a tool for me to help others. The patient’s flood or the family’s flood may not be the same as my own flood, but in reflecting on how I could bear my flood, hopefully I can help guide or companion others as they bear theirs.