Today I stumbled on a lovely little essay by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (whom the astute reader may or may not have noticed that I have developed a bit of an obsession with). It’s called “Thank Goodness!” It details the train of thought that followed after he nearly died from a ruptured aorta, the huge pipeline carrying blood out of the heart.
Dennett questions the phrase “thank goodness!” which appears in his mind, and investigates how his (famously, infamously) atheist worldview differs in such moments of crisis from the religious people.
There’s a fascinating tension in the essay in the essay. The sincereness of his gratitude and acceptance of the compassion of his friends and his appreciation the skill and the intelligence of his medical personnel — these are all on one side of this tension. On the other is the rational and formal disapproval he feels for the religious worldview which led his friends to say they prayed for him. His feeling that his religious friends are suckers.
One would certainly do well to remember the litany of things which keep us alive, the processes and the creativity which people devote their lives to all over the world in order that we can live. It is rare that we actually meet the people who invented the medicines we take, who peer-reviewed the science and the procedures which save us when we have appendicitis, a broken shoulder or an aggressive pneumonia. Dennett thanks them, and he was even lucky enough to be friends with the man who invented the machine that saved his life.
To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians …
I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.
At the same time, being a philosopher, he can never stop being committed to keeping his worldview.
I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond “Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?” I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said “I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health.” What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don’t expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.
Is it a kind of ingratitude? A way of not saying thank you for the (useless) actions taken on his behalf? It’s such an interesting tension in the piece (and, I guess, in him). There’s something searingly honest about it. And in the end, I think this is what I appreciate most about the piece. The tension is, I suspect, a good one.
Though our social lives thrive on the little moments of social smoothing-over of just saying thank you and going on your way, philosophy certainly does not. And friendship or other matters of the heart do not either. Surely, the respect of our loved ones requires honesty. If nothing else, then at least when we’re out at the edges of life. Coming in, or going back out.