By Andrew Coates, M.D., F.A.C.P.
WAMC Northeast Public Radio, Dec. 6, 2013
December arrives under honking geese. As the last dying leaves find their way to the ground, frost tints the mornings, snow flurries lick the landscape, and Orion rises before bedtime. Holiday gatherings have begun. Time away from work and school might not allow us a whole day for reflection. But we might each find at least a moment of reverie or pause.
Philosophers have long explained that the world endures through a great process of dying and becoming, in the sense that everything, everyone, its at once itself and also not itself, in flux, a developing whole made up of opposites. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Although we recognize the truth of it when we hear this ancient observation, we seldom take, or can seldom find, time to see the world in this way.
In our frenetic, pressurized social world, we cope with so many arrangements not of our making or choosing, each complete with a corporate logo and expected brand loyalty. It often seems that an expanding tangle of obligations simply fill our days. Time to step back and think about our lives runs in a trickle.
Plus, it seems strange to say “you cannot drive twice upon the same highway.” But a glimpse of ourselves as at once our old self and also the person we are becoming, changing in a changing world, even on our familiar daily commute, might be the beginning of wisdom, if we aim to develop ourselves as human beings. But when we’re a few minutes late to work, driving in traffic that is building to a clog on Albany’s 787, it seems impossible that we might think “Where are we heading?” in a metaphysical or world-historical way.
Addled by the need to change lanes, or to plan to get gasoline, or snow tires, one doesn’t take time to reflect, for example, that the Livingston Avenue railroad bridge is still in use since the post-Civil War days of Radical Republicanism, while the very highway on which we’re rolling has already require restoration from dangerous decay, since the days when Reagan was in the White House. Or that the waves just rippling an otherwise placid Hudson River announce the turning tide of the Atlantic Ocean – the very tranquil waters that told Henry Hudson’s crew that they had discovered a great estuary, not the northwest passage.
Several years back, at this time of year, I practiced medicine in Shiprock, in the Navajo Nation. We moved as a family, children and all, to New Mexico. We cherish the brief acquaintance we had with Diné culture, in which we learned to respect the breathtaking Navajo landscape as the hallowed grounds of epic human struggle. The biting winds of winter’s eve still breathe life into those experiences. It was a powerful journey, one that brought us outside of ourselves and drew us together.
While evidence of indigenous human life has been almost entirely erased from our landscape here in upstate New York, the patterns of human settlement, farming, production, and commerce established during the first centuries of colonization by Europeans etch the landscape still. Yet the past recedes so quickly. For example among our new generations very few have a connection the old ways of farm life, hand tools and homespun, in the insightful ways that earlier generations, grandchildren of immigrants and slaves, once knew.
As the cold rises from the earth and pale grays and tans emerge to soften the woods and fields before the snowfall, like the generations before us, we should take time to reflect on our species in the larger arc of history – and also the immediate social predicaments that ensnare us personally. The effort to consider what it is that might make life more worthy of the people we love prove surprisingly powerful – for each of us and for all of us.
I have glimpsed the capacity each of have to change ourselves. Among the many indelible experiences brought to my life by the privilege of being a physician, attending the death of patients has taught me about people. In the face of the death of a family member, friend or even a stranger, people rise to the occasion. With death an irrevocable change occurs – and human beings reach inside, summon appropriate emotion, muster personal courage, as well as community resources of human solidarity – and then they transcend.
A time is coming when we will find that we simply must move forward to transcend our present social and environmental predicaments – personally and also as species. For today, a moment of personal reflection can help us meet that coming challenge.
Dr. Andrew Coates practices internal medicine in Upstate New York. He is president of Physicians for a National Health Program.
You can listen to Dr. Coates’ radio broadcast here: http://wamc.org/post/andrew-coates-time-reflect
By Andrew Coates, M.D., F.A.C.P.