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Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week
November 19—25, 2023 | THIS WEEK'S THEME: “Illness”
Opening Line of the Week
A time-honored way to open a book is to invoke the words of a famous author—and in this case, the quoted saying applies as well to illness as it did to going broke. I was delighted to honor O’Rourke’s opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
A finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, O’Rourke’s meticulously-researched book was described by Esquire magazine as “At once a rigorous work of scholarship and a radical act of empathy.”
Later in the work, O’Rourke—a poet, writer, and creative writing teacher—took a legendary opening line (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) and cleverly altered it to serve her purposes:
“And so it is a truth universally acknowledged among the chronically ill that a young woman in possession of vague symptoms like fatigue and pain will be in search of a doctor who believes she is actually sick.”
This Week’s Puzzler
On November 25, 1913, this man was born in Flushing, New York (his mother was a registered nurse, his father a doctor). As a child, he often accompanied his dad on house calls, and, not surprisingly, these experiences resulted in an early desire to become a physician. Nobody in his family was surprised when he ultimately chose the pre-med program at Princeton University, but some eyebrows were raised when he went on to show as much interest in poetry and literature as in his natural science courses.
After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1937, he worked as a practicing physician for several years before gravitating toward medical research in the developing field of immunology. Decades later, at a 1982 symposium held in his honor. he was called “The father of modern immunology and experimental pathology.”
At the height of his career, he was one of America’s most prominent physicians, serving as dean of the New York University School of Medicine (1966-1969) and dean of the Yale Medical School (1972-73) before becoming President and CEO of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, where he served from 1973 to 1980.
In 1971, he was invited to write a monthly column for the New England Journal of Medicine. His column, titled “Notes of a Biology Watcher,” was patterned after the essays of one of his favorite writers, Michel de Montaigne. In 1974, several dozen of the essays were put together in The Lives of a Cell, a book that went on to win the National Book Award in two separate categories, Arts and Letters and The Sciences.
For the rest of his life, until his 1993 death at age 80 of a rare lymphoma-like cancer, this week’s Mystery Man juggled a medical and a writing career, authoring six books, including The Medusa and the Snail (1979) and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983), also a National Book Award winner. He had a flair for figurative language, and some of his most famous observations were metaphorical masterpieces:
“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”
Analogies, metaphors, and similes all try to explain one thing by likening it to something else, and the best ones—as you’ve just seen—make unexpected and novel connections. He also did it in an unforgettable way in an essay on “Notes of Punctuation”:
“Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”
In an essay on illness in The Fragile Species (1992), he offered a powerful observation on this week’s theme:
Who is this person? (Answer below)
What Role Has Illness Played in Your Life?
While illness may not be a prime theme in world literature, it is a powerful theme in the lives of almost all human beings. And whether illness befalls us directly, or someone we love, the pattern is generally pretty much the same. Just prior to the onset of illness, things may be going fairly well, or even beautifully. And then, just like that, the course of our lives can be dramatically altered. In Illness As a Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag described the phenomenon well:
When most people think of illness, their first thought goes to the patient, and that is probably as it should be. But illness—especially serious illness—has a significant ripple effect, affecting countless spouses, parents, siblings, and other loved ones. And while considerable attention has been placed on the stress experienced by primary caregivers, illness can also put a severe strain on friendships. One of my favorite writers expressed it this way:
When it comes to illness, almost everyone has a story to tell—and so do I. In 1995, at age 53, I was informed by my physician that three of the six biopsies recently taken from my prostate gland were malignant. The key question at the time—and one that wouldn’t be answered until surgery was performed a few months later—was, “Has the cancer metastasized?”
If the cancer had spread, I wouldn’t be here today, joining the tragically large numbers of men who’ve succumbed to prostate cancer at a fairly early age (including one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dan Fogelberg, who died of the disease at age 56 in 2007). Happily, though, the surgery revealed no evidence of metastasis, and the prostatectomy effectively removed the cancer from my body.
I now look back on the experience with something close to fondness, for it not only gave me a glimpse of my mortality, it reminded me that I’d better get moving if I wanted to achieve some lifelong dreams (it is no accident that my first “word and language” book, Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You, came out four years later).
It could just as easily have gone the other way, though, and millions of other people have not been so fortunate. For those poor souls, their final months have been horrific—for them as well as for their many loved ones who desperately hoped and prayed for a miracle that never came to pass.
This week, think about the times when a serious illness descended on you or someone you love. Also give some thought to people you know who are currently fighting a significant medical battle (and while you’re thinking of them, don’t forget to extend a kind word to those caring for them). As you approach this powerful theme in human life, here’s a sampling of quotations to stimulate your thinking:
A man’s illness is his private territory and, no matter how much he loves you and how close you are, you stay an outsider. You are healthy. — Lauren Bacall
QUOTE NOTE: Bacall was writing about husband Humphrey Bogart’s battle with esophageal cancer, which took his life at age 57 in 1957, less than a year after it was first diagnosed.
When illness enters a home, not only does it take hold of a body. It also weaves a dark web between hearts, a web where hope is trapped. — Muriel Barbery
The more serious the illness, the more important it is for you to fight back. You’ve got to mobilize all your resources—spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical. Your heaviest artillery will be your will to live. Keep that big gun going. — Norman Cousins
The seed of health is in illness, because illness contains information. — Marilyn Ferguson
Those who have never been ill are incapable of real sympathy for a great many misfortunes. — André Gide
Recovery from illness often seems like beginning life all over again. — Cornelia Meigs
Another person’s illness is often harder to bear than one’s own. — Iris Murdoch
Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promises only; pain we obey. — Marcel Proust
Illness is the opposite of freedom. It makes everything impossible. You lose so many things when you’re ill. — Françoise Sagan
I dislike helplessness in other people and in myself, and this is by far my greatest fear of illness. — John Steinbeck
For source information on these quotations, and many others on the topic of ILLNESS, go here.
Cartoon of the Week
Answer to This Week’s Puzzler:
Lewis Thomas (1913-93)
Dr. Mardy’s Observation of the Week
Thanks for joining me again this week. See you next Sunday morning, when the theme will be “Giving Thanks.”
Regarding My Lifelong Love of Quotations: A Personal Note
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