Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Listen, hear

Posted by boakley59 on August 28, 2008

Hospitals are great teaching institutions. I am a little sorry to say I do not mean this in the sense that they are important places for our medical practitioners to learn their trade, but rather that they are places where patients can learn valuable lessons about the human condition.

Every time I am in the hospital, observation of the daily routine, of the caregivers and of the other patients teaches me profound lessons. Something about being a captive and helpless audience drives these lessons home more forcefully in that setting than in the more normal walks of life.

In my most recent stay I learned how little most of us hear over the sound of our own voices. My roommate this visit was a scared man new to hospitalization and the helplessness of major illness. He was part of a generation that expects doctors to know how to fix everything with just the right pill or procedure applied at just the right time. He was a teacher of building trades, and he understood blueprints and schedules and craftsmanship as applied methodology.

From the moment he arrived, he wondered when the doctors would come by, when he would get his pills, when he would be allowed to go home and most of all when anybody would tell him anything. He would discuss these concerns with his wife, and he would ask medical staff at every opportunity, but anytime he was left alone for a bit, he would be mumbling the same questions to himself, complaining that he was not getting answers.

Here’s the thing: He got a direct, straightforward answer every time he asked anybody a question, but he never heard it! He kept right on talking through every question, mumbling explanations about why he was asking and how he didn’t want to be a pest, but never pausing his monologue to listen to the answer! He never recorded the schedule of pills or visits or meals because he kept pressing the question while the answer was being delivered.

He grew angrier and more frustrated and suspicious as the days went on, insisting that no one would tell him anything about his prognosis. Ironically, the schedule he most wanted to know about was the one that was most dependent on listening to himself: He could go home and live a life beyond a hospital bed when his body would tell him he was ready. He couldn’t sit up in the bed without strain, yet he wanted the doctors to tell him what time on what day he would be ready to go home. They told him repeatedly that he would be observed as he developed his stamina and would go home when it was clear he was strong enough. So, what time is that so I can set my alarm, he kept wanting to know.

Few of life’s questions have simple answers, but our internal machinery is optimized around life-saving either-or options: fight or flight, friend or foe, silence or alarm, light or dark. We seek the simple, because the complex taxes our patience and demands that we sit still in moments of fear.

We don’t believe in sitting still. We must keep up the good fight; we must advocate for our own; we must not yield to evidence as long as there is the remotest chance that what seems to be authority might in fact be a vast conspiracy to cheat us of our individual rights.

We are governed by the salesman’s creed: Don’t take no for an answer, certainly not the first two or three times. And so we accept the lies of snake-oil salesmen who say there is controversy and doubt about evolution; concerned parents put entire communities at risk for known diseases because some shill concocts a nightmare about autism and vaccinations; voters are comforted by the obvious lie of a politician willing to pledge the impossible “no new taxes.” We can’t be bothered to examine the evidence, so long as we can be comforted that someone acknowledges our pain, whatever it may be. We would rather be comforted than educated.

So, when doctors tell us that they are observing our reactions to a mix of medicines and balancing the effects against each other, we can soothe ourselves in a bizarre way that there is a conspiracy of silence in which the doctors haven’t answered the question and are really hiding their ignorance and don’t care about healing us. When paleontologists tell us we can trace the evolution of the eye, we cling to the fiction that the chain of evidence is not sufficiently continuous to prove the point, somehow making scientists part of a conspiracy to deny claims of an origin with a markedly less substantial chain of evidence. When epidemiologists tell us decades of data indicate no causal link between autism and vaccination, we insist that there must be a link because someone knows someone whose child’s condition turned with suspicious timing.

It’s so much easier to imagine a fantastic conspiracy of lies than to accept unpleasant evidence that bad stuff happens for reasons other than the one we think we can pin on somebody. And the salesman’s trick is always to say that it is the entrenched bureaucracy that has the vested interest in not listening to the truth. But here’s a clue: When your argument relies on monsters under the bed and every recognizable authority tells you there are none, chances are you are the one who is not listening. You are the one, no matter how sincere your wish to protect your loved ones or ferret out the truth, who is delusional. You are the conspirator against the truth.

So, when you want answers, shut up and listen. But listen to the engine, not the sales pitch. Know how the engine works, not how the salesman does. Listen to the hum of life, not the whisper of fear or the carnival barker’s cozy coddling.

Listening is hard work. Ultimately, it requires that we confront ourselves and our fears, that we acknowledge that others know more than we do and indeed that in the largest sense others matter more than we do. Listening demands that what is beyond us is what’s important, and that is a difficult blow in our arrogance.

Give yourself up. Listen. Hear. Life, love, beautiful noise is all around you.


One Response to “Listen, hear”

  1. Ben said

    Bruce, Now I see a pattern in your postings. You have the makings of a book, a commercially published book (not vanity press or iUniverse/xLibris etc.). Whether it’s memoir (as defined in these Oprah days), health-care handbook or Crohn’s self-help manual, it may be too early to give it that kind of direction. You’ve got something worthwhile. NY publishers would want to sell it. You’ve got the writing and organizational chops most people don’t. And now, something to say.

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