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What Really Matters

April 18, 2007

So I just finishing reading Arthur Kleinman’s What Really Matters. An interesting read, albeit too speculative.

Kleinman is an anthropologist who teaches at the Anthropology Department at Harvard as well as the Harvard Med School. Here’s a description of the book:

Life can sometimes thrust us into troubling circumstances that threaten to undo our thin mastery over those things that matter most. In this moving and thought-provoking volume, Arthur Kleinman tells the unsettling stories of a handful of men and women, some of whom have lived through some of the most fundamental transitions of the turbulent twentieth century.

 Here we meet an American veteran of World War II, tortured by the memory of the atrocities he committed while a soldier in the Pacific. A French-American woman aiding refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, facing the utter chaos of a society where life has become meaningless. A Chinese doctor trying to stay alive during Mao’s cultural revolution, discovering that the only values that matter are those that get you beyond the next threat.

 These individuals have found themselves caught in circumstances where those things that matter most to them–their desires, status, relationships, resources, political and religious commitments, life itself–have been challenged by the society around them. Each is caught up in existential moral experiences that define what it means to be human, with an intensity that makes their life narratives arresting. Their stories reveal just how malleable moral life is, and just how central danger is to our worlds and our livelihood.

And here’s a choice passage from the epilogue:

I have long found arresting a painting of Pablo Picasso’s titled “The Head of a Medical Student”. The Painting is of a face in the form of an African mask with one eye open, and the other closed. Medical students learn to open one eye to the pain and suffering of patients and the world, but also to close the other

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eye – to protect their belief that they can do good, and change the world for the better, to protect their own self-interests such as career building and economic gain.

I would generalize the provocative poignancy of this picture to how we live our lives. One of our eyes is open to the dangers of the world and the uncertainty of our human condition; the other is closed, so that we do not see or feel these things, so that we can get on with our lives. But perhaps one is closed, so that we can see, feel and do something of value. One eye, perhaps, sees the possibilities and hopefulness of who we are and where we are headed, while the other is shut tight with fear over the storms and precipices that lie ahead.

Or, perhaps like all thigs human, it is about something else altogether, something else that mattered to Picasso, because when I look at others of his paintings that feature faces formed as African masks, one eye often seems closed – a perturbing matter of style or a disturbing matter of existential insight?

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