Religio Medici - The Untroubled Mind

Religio Medici - The Untroubled Mind

RELIGIO MEDICI


At all events, it is certain that if any medical man had come to Middlemarch with the reputation of having definite religious views, of being given to prayer and of otherwise showing an active piety, there would have been a general presumption against his medical skill.

George Eliot.

When a medically educated man talks and writes of religion and of God, he is rightly enough questioned by his brothers—who are too busy with the hard work of practice to be concerned with anything but material problems. To me the word “God” is symbolic of the power which created and which maintains the universe. The sunrise and the stars of heaven give me some idea of his majesty, the warmth and tenderness of human love give me some idea of his divine love. That is all I know, but it is enough to make life glow; it is enough to inspire the most intense devotion to any good cause; it is enough to make me bear suffering with some degree of patience; and it is enough, finally, to give me some confidence and courage even in the face of the great mystery of death.


Why this or another conception of God should produce such a profound result upon any one, I do not know, except that in some obscure way it connects the individual with the divine plan, and does not leave him outside in despair and loneliness. However that may be, it will be conceded that a religious conception of some kind does much toward justifying life, toward making it strong and livable, and so has directly to do with certain important problems of illness and health. The most practical medical man will admit that any illness is made lighter and more likely to recover in the presence of hope and serenity in the mind of the patient.


Naturally the great bulk of medical practice calls for no handling other than that of the straight medical sort. A man comes in with a crushed finger, a girl with anæmia—the way is clear. It is only in deeper, more intricate departments of medicine that we altogether fail. The bacteriologist and the pathologist have no use for mental treatment, in their departments. But when we come to the case of the nervously broken-down school teacher, or the worn-out telegrapher, that is another matter. Years may elapse before work can be resumed—years of dependence and anxiety. Here, a new view of life is often more useful than drugs, a view that accepts the situation reasonably after a while, that does not grope blindly and impatiently for a cure, but finds in life an inspiration that makes it good in spite of necessary suffering and limitations. Often enough we cannot promise a cure, but we must be prepared to give something better.


A great deal of the fatigue and unhappiness of the world is due to the fact that we do not go deep enough in our justification for work or play, or for any experience, happy or sad. There is a good deal of a void after we have said, “Art for art’s sake,” or “Play for the joy of playing,” or even after we have said, “I am working for the sake of my family, or for some one who needs my help.” That is not enough; and whether we realize it or not, the lack of deeper justification is at the bottom of a restlessness and uncertainty which we might not be willing to acknowledge, but which nevertheless is very real.

I am not satisfied when some moralist says, “Be good and you will be happy.” The kind of happiness that comes from a perfunctory goodness is a thing which I cannot understand, and which I certainly do not want. If I work and play and serve and employ, making up the fabric of a busy life, if I attain a very real happiness, I am tormented by the desire to know why I am doing it, and I am not satisfied with the answer I usually get. The patient may not be cured when he is relieved of his anæmia, or when his emaciation has given place to the plumpness and suppleness and physical strength that we call health.


The man whom we look upon as well, and who has never known physical illness, is not well in the larger sense until he knows why he is working, why he is living, why he is filling his life with activity. In spite of the elasticity and spring of the world’s interests, there must come often, and with a kind of fatal insistence, the deep demand for a cause, for a justification. If there is not an adequate significance behind it, life, with all its courage and accomplishment, seems but a sorry thing, so full of pathos, even in its brightest moments, so shadowed with a sense of loss and of finality that the bravest heart may well fail and the truest courage relax, supported only by the assurance that this way lies happiness or that right is right.


What is this knowledge that the world is seeking, but can never find? What is this final justification? If we seek it in its completeness, we are doomed always to be ill and unsatisfied. If we are willing to look only a little way into the great question, if we are willing to accept a little for the whole, content because it is manifestly part of the final knowledge, and because we know that final knowledge rests with God alone, we shall understand enough to save us from much sorrow and painful incompleteness.


There is, in the infinitely varied and beautiful world of nature, and in the hearts of men, so much of beauty and truth that it is a wonder we do not all realize that these things of common life may be in us and for us the daily and hourly expression of the infinite being we call God. We do not see God, but we do feel and know so much that we may fairly believe to be of God that we do not need to see Him face to face. It is something more than imagination to feel that it is the life of God in our lives, so often unrecognized or ignored, that prompts us to all the greatness and the inspiration and the accomplishment of the world. If we could know more clearly the joy of such a conception, we should dry up at its source much of the unhappiness which is, in a deep and subtle way, at the bottom of many a nervous illness and many a wretched existence.


The happiness which is found in the recognition of kinship with God, through the common things of life, in the experiences which are so significant that they could not spring from a lesser source, the happiness which is not sought, but which is the inevitable result of such recognition—this experience goes a long way toward making life worth living.


If we do have this conception of life, then some of the old, old questions that have vexed so many dwellers upon the earth will no longer be a source of unhappiness or of illness of mind or body. The question of immortality, for instance, which has made us afraid to die, will no longer be a question—we shall not need to answer it, in the presence of God, in our lives and in the world about us. We shall be content finally to accept whatever is in store for us—so it be the will of God. We may even look for something better than mere immortality, something more divine than our gross conception of eternal life.


This is a religion that I believe medical men may teach without hesitation whenever the need shall arise. I know well enough that many a blunt if kindly man cannot bring himself to say these words, even if he believes them, but I do think that in some measure they point the way to what may wisely be taught.


There is a practice of medicine—the common practice—that is concerned with the body only, and with its chemical and mechanical reactions. We can have nothing but respect and admiration for the men who go on year after year in the eager pursuit of this calling. We know that such a work is necessary, that it is just as important as the educational practice of which I write. We know that without the physical side medicine would fail of its usefulness and that disease and death would reap far richer harvests: I only wish the two naturally related aspects of our dealing with patients might not be so completely separated that they lose sight of each other.


As a matter of fact, both elements are necessary to our human welfare. If medicine devotes itself altogether to the cure and prevention of physical disease, it will miss half of its possibilities. It is equally true that if we forget the physical necessities in our zeal for spiritual hygiene, we shall get and deserve complete and humiliating failure. Many men will say, “Why mix the two? Why not let the preachers and the philosophers preach and the doctors follow their own ways?” For the most part this may have to be the arrangement, but the doctor who can see and treat the spiritual needs of his patient will always be more likely to cure in the best sense than the doctor who sees only half of the picture. On the other hand, the philosopher is likely to be a comparatively poor doctor, because he knows nothing of medicine, and so can see only the other half of the picture. There is much to be said for the religion of medicine if it can be kept free from cant, if it can be simple and rational enough to be available for the whole world.

Excerpt From The Untroubled Mind By Herbert J. Hall