Monday, November 08, 2010

No One Cares

The universe doesn't care either. Buck up, already.

My mother was in the hospital almost a year ago. To my great disappointment, she received what I felt was unsatisfactory quality of care from what I thought was one of the best health care facilities in the U.S., if not the world. During her hospital stay (and then a stint at a rehabilitation center), my mother was in intense pain, and no one on the hospital staff seemed as dedicated to diagnosing the problem and solving it as I would have liked.

I don't usually watch TV shows like House or Grey's Anatomy, but perhaps I had harbored false preconceptions of doctors as tortured detectives who relentlessly pursue the truth about what's ailing patients and themselves. The reality of doctors, nurses, and patients was uglier and definitely less glamorous than TV medical dramas. The real-life hospital staff was overworked and distracted. They tried to make my mother's discomfort manageable, certainly, but basically wanted her to follow directions and be a good patient while they labored to perform their duties around the ward. 

After a particularly bad visit one evening, I recalled the words from Matthew Arnold's very well-known "Dover Beach":
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
My mother's situation--from which, thankfully, she later recovered fully--illustrates on a small scale the very real circumstances we are discussing when we talk about things like the universe, purpose, and meaning.

In the real world, if we are not looking out for the ones we love then they are at the mercy of people  with other priorities and forces without priorities. For every rainbow here is a devastating volcano blast there. For every deed of sharing and selflessness is one of intense brutality. But for the light we make ourselves, we live in a place that will be dark or light only according to its laws and without any ability even to register indifference to us.

The thesis I want to argue now is that we are fortunate to live in such a universe. It is a good thing for us, in other words, that our universe is blind, pitiless, meaningless, and pointless.

Consider the following quotes:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

The great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it.

The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.
People often argue that if evolution is true or if scientists such as Weinberg are correct, then the universe is a depressing place and our lives are but jokes. Not so, I say, not so at all.

If evolution is true and Weinberg is correct, then the universe is neutral. It is not for us, but it's not against us either. The natural events of the world happen because of the conditions out of which they emerge, not because we are being praised or punished by an overlooking, intervening moral judge.

The utter neutrality of the universe is liberating. Because the universe, and everything in it, is neutral with respect to us, we are free to make and to find meaning from within ourselves.

With this freedom comes the freedom to revise, re-create, and re-invent meanings. We are empowered to challenge the values of our parents, our mainstream culture, and ourselves.

We can question values, we should do so, and we should absolutely insist on the care and preservation of this power for all people. This power to challenge and to question, in reasoned discourse and in equitable political circumstances, should be inalienable.

If the universe is an instrument of some being's will, then our individual desires are in decidedly worse standing than in the neutral universe. If the universe is part of someone else's plan and subject to someone else's whims and judgments, then we are insignificant even to ourselves.

How did my mother begin to recover? We hired a private nurse to sit with her and to advocate for her before the hospital staff. We visited every day and stayed with her, along with my father. The nurse often stayed overnight. The nurse mediated between us, my mother, and the hospital.

Once we realized that we, like my mother, were among confused alarms, we were able to take simple actions to make things better. Once we accepted that we were ignorantly fighting by night, we focused on solutions that would bring us all better visibility into what was happening.

In the universe of judgment and partiality, we were powerless and immobile. In the neutral universe, we were able to seize our part of the day.


  1. Rambam4:43 PM

    Nice post.

    My grandmother is dying in the hospital right now. She had a bad stroke on Wednesday night in the hospital she lives in and they called my parents on Saturday. She is unresponsive now. It is pretty amazing that she was unresponsive for two full days before they noticed anything. With all the money she is paying them, it would be nice if they even noticed she had a fucking stroke and lost the ability to communicate (which she had up until then). She also has a private nurse by her 24/7.

    Anyhow it is pretty safe to say they are robbing my poor grandma and could care less about her health. The drugs keep her pretty relaxed at least.

    She is already on a respirator permanently, fed through a tube, and unable to walk. Since she can't make any decisions anymore, those will all be my Dad's decisions to make.

    I don't know much about the Jewish laws regarding these things. My Dad will undoubtedly follow them to the letter though. She could bounce back some from the stroke. Assuming she doesn't, I don't see much reason in prolonging the inevitable for such small quality of life, but perhaps that was her wish. We'll see.

    Glad to hear your Mother got better.

  2. Sorry about your grandmother. Given how much we all pay for health care, I don't think we're getting our money's worth.

  3. My wife is a nurse at a small community hospital. From what she tells me, it’s not that the nurses don’t care. It’s 1. that they have too much to do, and 2. It’s not the nurse’s mother. Most people themselves as most important. My wife says she wishes she could say things like, “I’d love to get you more water, but I’ve got to give this other patient his blood transfusion so he doesn’t die.” Instead it’s, “I’ll get it as soon as I can,” and then patients get upset when she doesn’t come back for a half hour.

  4. Rambam10:45 AM

    I am not trying to make any sweeping claims about the system. My grandmother has rotating private nurses 24/7, so the sort of excuses you mention are irrelevant. I am not so bitter though.

  5. G*3,

    I believe you that the nurses care, and I agree with your #1 and #2 points.

    One thing that really struck me throughout my mother's ordeal was the absence of doctors. Visits by doctors were rare. My mother's actual PCP was out of the country and never came by. In my mind, this was the person who REALLY ought to have been advocating for my mother along with our family. Instead, that doctor was out of the picture and, IIRC, not a factor in my mother's treatment or recovery.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.