Thursday, October 8, 2015

Getting the Joke

Many years ago, one of my children at a very young age was misbehaving and unhappy in school.  As two physician parents, we had him assessed by a preeminent child and adolescent psychiatrist who lived in our area.  The late Dr. Sherman Feinstein was at the time the editor of the Journal, Adolescent Psychiatry and had been a faculty member at both the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois.  When my wife and I, both relatively young serious physicians would ask him for his diagnosis of our son, we would always answer, “He doesn’t get the joke.”  We would of course be frustrated but he never wavered in that diagnosis.  That son is now grown, successful and definitely gets the joke. 

Recently, another one of my sons started a project in which he drives around the country interviewing people to better understand the nature of spirituality in these United States.  His recent blog post was entitled, “On Absurdity.”  He states, “So way down there in the trenches of my belief is this incongruity, this inescapable absurd formulation of believing at once that, yes we are all holy, knowing godly beings….but that we are also Hobbesian animals, too often fighting and killing each other like mindless unknowing brutes.”  We, as health care professionals, often give ourselves godlike powers even when we understand that bad things happen over which we have no control and inevitably we will make mistakes and bad things will happen because we are human.  The joke is that life is full of irony and absurdity whether in health care or religion or everyday activities.  That is just a part of our shared reality. 

All this comes to mind due to a confluence of unrelated events.  First, I have been traveling the past week to speak at conferences (my previous two blogs were more directly related to those conferences).  The rooms were filled with earnest young brilliant people who all had the answers to questions which have both fascinated and eluded me for much of my adult life.  Somehow I was both energized and amused by watching them in their earnest certitude.  The ideas that technology, data and Internet solutions could be the total answers to our health care questions seemed a bit absurd to me.  Second, I have been writing a paper on approaches to quality improvement which quotes the quality literature and the goal of “zero defects” that I know to be theoretical but people often confuse with something that is attainable with the right technology, the right data and the right evidence based medical guidelines.  The idea that healthcare, with messy human beings who bring with them complex diseases, complex social connections, differing values and cultures and their own emotions and even dysfunction can ever reach zero defects is really pretty funny.  The third was a conversation with a very close friend of mine who is a brilliant physician and now has a cancer with a particularly poor prognosis. 

This friend is someone who is always a bit depressed and overwhelmed by life.  He and I live in different cities however we speak regularly and it is often to give each other as hard a time as possible.  He is cautious, exacting, and holds himself to an impossible standard of excellence that any other mere mortal would see as ludicrous.  Whenever we speak he tells me of all the little annoyances that are getting in the way of perfection and all of the different daily life issues that are clearly taking his valuable time.  I make fun of his perfection in ways only close friends can.  But not this time we spoke.  Now he spoke with a calm and even happy tone that I rarely hear from him.  All this while he told me that the studies he has reviewed suggest his mean survival is unlikely to be longer than 31 months.  The thirty one months is typical of him.  Not “between 2 and 3 years” but thirty-one months.  I commented on his happy demeanor and he agreed.  All of a sudden all the small issues that would ordinarily annoy him seemed meaningless.  He got the joke.  It may have taken him his entire life but the happy news is that he now got it. 

The joke is that we all make mistakes; we tend to believe we have more control than we truly do, and that most do not accept or even realize that life is a fatal disease.  It is that life and work are filled with paradox that cannot be reconciled.  It is, in the words of an elderly monk quoted in Yossi Klein Halevy’s book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden” that we must “Stand up for what we believe in but leave the results to God.”  It is the old Yiddish saying that Man Plans and God Laughs. 

We tend to take ourselves, our work and our own pronouncements (like this blog) more seriously than we should.  Rosamund and Ben Zander, in their book, “The Art of Possibility” have a chapter dedicated to “rule # 6” which is “don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.”  I know that I often do.  I just then remind myself as I write these blog posts, that I send them to the cloud with little knowledge of whether people will actually read them.  That joke is on me. 


This brings me back to the meetings I attended last week with all of those earnest, smart mainly young people.  I think they need to have more people my age and older attend.   I believe that if you survive into your 60s and still attend these types of meetings, you are more likely to get the joke.  Wisdom and experience may really be a manifestation of understanding the irony of life.  That perspective may help balance the sheer enthusiasm of the young smart intense people who tend to gravitate towards these difficult problems.  Wisdom may be defined by the understanding that no matter how serious our mission, and no matter how intense our focus and efforts, if we don’t fundamentally get the joke and take ourselves less seriously, if we don’t understand that success is defined as trying to get closer to goodness even if we can never attain it, we will end up locked into our own concrete paradigms and ultimately fail.  And besides, if you get the joke, whether you succeed or not you can at least enjoy all the effort.