Dichotomizing

FROM SEQUENCE 1
February 1999
Later published as “The Anvil and the Hedgehog” in Choices: A Chapbook —World Voices, Web del Sol

Aristotle proposed that human beings could be divided into the rulers and the ruled; Goethe saw us as either hammers or anvils; for Archilochus, Erasmus and Isaiah Berlin, the fox knows many things, and the hedgehog one great thing; Philip Rahv—thinking only of American fiction writers—distinguished redskins from palefaces. Increasingly, it seems to me that such dichotomies only scratch the surface. For example, there are those who when they want a cup of boiling water, put a cup or so in a teakettle and heat it up, and those who fill the kettle and make, say, eight cups, one for themselves and the other seven for . . . ? Or, on rainy days I find myself noting that, distinct from those, such as myself, who scrupulously try to avoid all puddles, there is another, at least equally large group of people who proceed as if it hadn’t rained in weeks. (Do their shoes repel water? Or do such people not mind having wet feet? Or is it a matter of nerves—these people walk in and out of puddles and don’t feel a thing?)

Many years ago, when I was working at a small magazine, I came to feel that a worker faced a simple but most consequential choice: to be either a doctor or a patient. The top editors had chosen to be doctors, and as a result they enjoyed their authority, were paid more, had more stable jobs, and at times might also enjoy the admiration—love even—of the others involved in putting out the magazine. The disadvantage was that they had to ceaselessly pretend to be stronger and wiser than they actually were, and they had to be ever available to deal with crises, real and imagined weaknesses, the complaints and self-indulgence of these others.

Having competed for and won one of the top editor’s posts, naturally I felt that the patients—the writers, in particular—were paying an excessive price: to so often feel and appear weak and inadequate as they struggled to organize their material, find cuts, meet the deadlines. In the first phase they would come to the editors for coddling; in the second—carried away by our role, as both doctors and patients are wont to be—we editors were often “forced” to take the controls at the writers’ word-processors and finish their stories for them.

But this is also to touch upon what fortunate patients enjoy: people who make it their duty to take care of them, people who listen to their problems and offer solutions and encouragement.

How exhausting the doctor’s work now seems. I think of the medical doctor daily acquainted with and denying the—at times fatal—limits of his knowledge and abilities. How simple and full the patient’s life: his pain, what and who might relieve it.



Categories: The Real World, writing

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