Monday, October 27, 2014

One's Own Best Self

"Michel de Montaigne describes the great friendship of his youth with Etienne de la Boetie as one in which a perfect communion of the spirit made the "soul grow refined." In the 1790s, Samuel Taylor Coleridge worshipped an idea of friendship that embodied the same ideal. Living at a time when persons of sensibility yearned for communion of the spirit, its frequent failure to materialize in friendship made Coleridge suffer, but the pain did not threaten his faith, even when he lost the friendship that defined all others.

Coleridge and Wordsworth met in 1795, when they were, respectively, twenty-three and twenty-five years old. Wordsworth - grave, thin-skinned, self-protective - was even then steadied by an inner conviction of his own coming greatness as a poet; Coleridge, on the other hand - brilliant, explosive, self-doubting to the point of instability - was already into opium. Anyone except them could see that they were bound to come a cropper. In 1795, however, a new world, a new poetry, a new way of being was forming itself, and at that moment both Wordsworth and Coleridge, each feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the person of the other.

The infatuation lasted a little more than a year and a half. At the end of that time, the chaos within Coleridge doubled its dominion; the pride in Wordsworth stiffened into near immobility. The person each had been for nearly two years - the one who had basked in the unbroken delight of the other - was no more. It wasn't exactly that they were returned  to the persons they had been before; it was only that never again would either feel his own best self in the presence of the other.

One's own best self. For centuries this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one's friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities - the fear, the anger, the humiliation - that excites contemporary bonds of friendship. Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in one another's company. Coleridge and Wordsworth dreaded such self-exposure; we adore it. What we want is to feel known, warts and all - the more warts, the better. It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are."

- Vivian Gornick, Letter from Greenwich Village

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


I feel like I'm writing a lot about death these days. One of my classmates from medical school passed away two nights ago. He was a neurosurgeon and a pilot and a plane he was flying crashed into a Chicago suburb. It was a densely populated area but the plane nosedived into a vacant lot. Experts at the site feel this was a deliberate effort to avoid surrounding buildings.

I knew T only peripherally. We were assigned to different groups through our years in medical school and never had any rotations together. He was a day scholar, I lived in the hostel. And yet, whenever I think of him now, all I remember is laughter. He had a gift for making you feel welcome in his presence. I am a fairly reclusive person but he managed to draw me out. He was very enthusiastic and had a puckish air around him. He was one of the youngest in our class, starting medical school at 17, graduating from a neurosurgical residency at 32. And yet he was never arrogant about his gifts. T was always sensitive to others and touched the lives of many around him. He brought joy to others. For a friend's wedding, he gathered a group of classmates and drove them across the country so everyone could attend. I'm sure there were many other road trips, many crazy memories people now carry. For my own part, I remember when I got my first cellphone, one of those indestructible Nokia 3310s, it was T who taught me how to send text messages. I was quite captivated by this marvelous technology and, even while others snickered at my enthusiasm for what was by then commonplace, T caught my delight and returned it with vigor.

The last time I met T was at a friend's wedding in Toledo. He was still in residency back then but had taken a day off to attend, flying in from New Mexico. He looked tired, as most surgical residents do, but he had none of their caffeinated bitterness. Still festive, still brimming with enthusiasm, he talked and laughed and we shared a few good hours together. I don't think I would have given up a few extra hours of precious sleep to fly in for a raucous wedding. But T was thoughtful that way. Even now, in his final moments, his consideration for others shone through. He saved the lives of so many.  

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