This won’t hurt a bit

This is the third in a three-part series about the everyday places we go.

Why is it that so many popular television dramas deal with hospitals, doctors, diagnoses, and medical mysteries? From General Hospital to House, from Mercy to E.R. to Scrubs, it seems that the viewing public is (and has long been) fascinated with dramatization of the medical world.

As if it weren’t dramatic enough.

Despite the fact that they exist in every community in our country, there are probably very few everyday places we wish to avoid more than the doctor’s office. The reasons for this are manifold.

We may wish to avoid what will be physically done to us there. The poking and prodding alone are never fun, and it only gets worse from there. We have to suffer the indignity of stepping onto a scale. We submit to uncertain and probably counterproductive tests. Take the blood pressure test as an example: whose blood pressure is going to be anywhere near normal when you’re sitting in your underwear on a cold, sterile seat with a small machine strapped to your arm and your only concern being a desperate attempt to slow down your breathing? Come to think of it, we almost certainly dislike sitting in our underwear in the first place… and God forbid we need to have blood work done.

We may fear a troubling diagnosis. Most of us know our family history and have at least a vague idea of the diseases and conditions for which we are at risk, and in some cases it’s only a matter of time. After hearing, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you,” is there anything left to be salvaged? No matter what follows, hearing such words usually means that the situation is already out of our hands.

We  may even wish to dodge the advice we already know we need. We know we ought to eat less, exercise more, drink less, sleep more, quit smoking, start paying more attention to vitamins and supplements. Not only do we know it, but in many cases we may even have tried. So we certainly don’t need to hear it again from a know-it-all.

Because after all, doctors know it all… don’t they?

You might say that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits litigated each year suggests otherwise; on the other hand, you might also say that people will be greedy and selfish and will go after medical professionals no matter how accurate and qualified the advice they receive. In fact, in my opinion, most medical malpractice cases (excepting instances of clear recklessness on the doctor’s part) represent simple visceral lashing out by individuals upset by their own mortality.

In other words, we don’t like to be reminded that we might have to die at some point, and we certainly don’t like it when doctors doing their best nevertheless bring us closer to that point.

Perhaps this is why we find ourselves so drawn to the television programs listed above: they allow us to experience our own mortality vicariously, while at the same time dispensing liberal helpings of humor, romance, drama, or other distractions designed to prevent us from recalling that the show is a fiction but that death is real.

Because that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it? The dramas fulfill a dual function. On the one hand, they allow us to confront death on prime time television, perhaps convincing us that our own mortality is something we can handle. On the other hand, the whole mirage—the specter of death—can be waved away with the push of a button, the change of a channel, even the interruption of commercials.

We want the best of both worlds. We want to believe that we can stare death in the eye without flinching, and we want to believe that we can send it away from us whenever we wish. This may be psychologically pleasing, but it isn’t accurate, and it isn’t real.

At one point in my life, I considered becoming a doctor. I decided that I couldn’t handle telling people that they were going to die. Yet I have several friends who are currently attending medical school, and they have evidently reached a different conclusion. I thank God for them, because I know that we need them and that they will do excellent work in their chosen calling—and because I know that this is something I could never do.

This post has become more serious than perhaps I originally intended it to be. Like a visit to the library or the barbershop, a trip to the doctor’s office can tell us quite a bit about our identity as human beings and our mental and emotional predispositions as individuals. Here, though, the mental and emotional stakes are particularly high. Unlike the places mentioned in my previous two posts, visiting the doctor’s office is both necessary for the continuation of life and necessarily problematic for our self-perception as mortals.

But what it really comes down to, I think, is a perceived lack of control and the fear that comes as a result. While we may go through every day of our lives feeling that we are more or less in control, a trip to the doctor’s office can quickly remind us that this is all but an illusion.

Of course, it doesn’t always have to be a doctor who does that. The recent earthquakes in Haiti, for example, reveal that the portion of our lives beyond our control is in fact much more than we’d care to admit.

If anything, perhaps this should make our doctor’s visits that much easier to bear: if so much of life is in fact outside our control, we can at least welcome the advice of a medical professional trained to prepare us to make whatever choices we do have in the matter. If knowledge in any of its forms is empowering, then we can always be thankful for the opportunity to move forward with clear (even if difficult) options. Lest we forget, doctors are frequently heroes and miracle workers in human form.

So the next time you dread your impending visit to the doctor’s office (as it is perfectly natural to do), remember that there may well be a certain comfort to be found in entrusting your difficult situation to an expert who has devoted his or her life to knowing you (physically) better than you know yourself. Summoning up some trust and relinquishing some control might be good for all of our health.

And who knows? It may not even hurt a bit.

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