Finding balance in the second half of life

Particular Lives

In Community on November 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm

“Every accident is particular.”

That’s what Darin Strauss said on Diane Rehm’s show yesterday. His most recent book, Half a Life, is the first time he’s written about an accident he had back in the 80s, when he was the driver who hit and killed a bicyclist who’d darted into his path.

He was responding to a listener to the show who e-mailed to say this one accident shouldn’t be generalized into anti-cyclist angst or regulation.

And of course that listener was right. What struck me, though, was that not just accidents are particular: Everything is particular.

I was already thinking about this, because we’ve just come through a fractious election season in which generalizations, stereotypes, and categorical condemnations played too prominent a role. If you only listen to mass-media pundits—whether on the left or the right—you’ll get a very different picture of what people are thinking than if you talk to your neighbor. You’ll react differently, too, in righteously indignant objection or sanctimonious agreement.

That’s entirely removed from having a conversation with another person about what she fears or hopes for. Especially if that person is a cousin whom you’ve loved since childhood but who happens to be a conservative Republican. That person just might be able to change your mind, or you might change hers, or at least you might find the middle path, the one where both of you can feel hopeful and secure together.

I’m not sure technology is helping us pursue lives together in civil society. Part of the problem is the mass media, of course. Having a few people pontificating from a media studio, heard by millions, does not make a dialog. A Sarah Palin-themed Facebook page—pro or con—gaining of thousands of fans in minutes doesn’t help anyone to understand anything new. And the “discussion” capability of many blogs and media sites doesn’t seem to spawn much actual discussion; what I see is so often vented venom that I take pains to avoid comments whenever I can.

Another way technology may be working against us is disguised, it seems to me. My husband passed along an article from The New York Times about the rise of data as “the next big thing in language, history, and the arts.”

I’m not saying that data is bad. I’m of an analytical bent, myself: I had a meeting yesterday regarding a nonprofit and found myself itching to dissect the donor data, to see what kind of picture the numbers would paint about our fundraising momentum.

But I do think that our ability to collect and analyze massive amounts of data—more data than my grandmother could even imagine, more than I can imagine myself—encourages us to think and act in abstractions. If we can so clearly identify trends and majorities, it’s too easy to overlook the needs of the minority, to assume that everything about the majority aligns, to lose track of the power of individual relationships.

I finally got around to reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains in the last few weeks. It’s the story of Paul Farmer’s amazing work as a doctor, first in the poorest regions of Haiti, then around the world. The subtitle of the book describes Farmer as “the man who would cure the world.” He’s the founder of Partners in Health, now a widely respected global organization addressing AIDS, TB, and other infectious diseases in parts of the world with lots of despair and few resources.

If I expected Farmer to take a big-picture approach to solving these problems, I would be wrong. What was striking about Kidder’s description of his work is the personal nature of it: Farmer knows his patients, he calls them by name and asks about their families; he treats each one individually, and he concerns himself with all aspects of their lives. He recognizes that if he cures a person of TB and sends her home to live in a dirt-floor hut with a leaky roof, no clean drinking water, no sanitation facilities, and brothers or children who are still infected with the disease, he hasn’t made a lasting difference.

And in addition to seeing the whole person in his patients, Farmer doesn’t apply the usual economic calculus to his decision-making. He wasn’t intimately involved in, but approved of, his organization’s decision to fly John, a teenager, from Haiti to Boston for medical treatment, at a cost of more than $20,000. John’s cancer, sadly, was found to be too advanced for treatment.

Was the money well spent? It depends on whether you base your judgment on the abstraction or on the particular. As I thought about the arguments on both sides, the most instructive, though clumsy, example was our experience with Coot, our German wire-haired pointer.

We picked up Coot from the breeder the weekend after our wedding, if I remember correctly. He was smart and energetic and puppy-cute; both my husband and my four-year-old son were besotted within 24 hours. It was several weeks before we noticed a funny spot in one of his eyes, a sort of dark bubble on his iris. The bubble was eventually diagnosed as a tumor, and the recommendation was for surgery to remove it at the MSU veterinary school, where Michigan’s best canine cancer specialists are said to practice.

We didn’t think long before we scheduled the surgery. The breeder had offered to exchange Coot for another dog, but that option already felt like a betrayal. If you had asked us in advance how much we would spend on specialized medical care for a household pet, I’m sure the answer would have been a small percentage of what we ultimately invested. As an abstraction, I still struggle with the amount of money Americans spend on pet care when, for example, millions of Pakistanis struggle to rebuild after an entire season of flooding.

But we spent the money; it felt like the only option. The surgery was successful, and Coot grew up with our children.

If the relationship with a dog inspires that reordering of priorities, that certainty of purpose, how much more does a relationship with another person? What would I spend for one of my children? What would I spend for a friend?

Compassion, it turns out, is particular, too; so is generosity.

And I wonder how personal relationships would affect our perceptions of the way we live together, including our communal spending. If Joseph, the former autoworker who’s been looking unsuccessfully for a new job, were my neighbor, would I feel differently about providing unemployment benefits? If I have a friend who is gay, can I accept a second-class-citizen status for him? When I talk to the high school student who’s grown up in my town without papers, could I look her in the eye and tell her I oppose the DREAM Act, that I’m not concerned that her future dead-ends with her graduation?

Among the basics for writers is the injunction to look forever for the meaningful detail, to remember that the specifics, not generalities, make what we write resonate with readers. Charles Eames, the designer, said “The details are not the details. They make the product.” And if we’ll pay attention, the details will also make our lives.

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