Reflections on the Semester: ‘When Hurt Comes Crashing In: How to Live in Pain’
Nina Polachek wrote after Prof. Arthur Kleinman’s (11/6) lecture: “Kleinman’s urgency in calling us to caregiving emphasizes the concrete, the active, side of ethics. It seems that his late journey with his wife, through tragic waters, brought him to port in a much more immediate and demanding world than the world of ethical abstraction (a world where the self’s responsibility to the world is calculated in terms of one “person” to another “person”). But “person” here is trapped inside the realm of the mind, the abstract, existing as a mere idea. Can this idea withstand the weight of a living, breathing, crying, screaming, dying woman with a name so intimate that it joined itself to his?
There is something about Joan Kleinman’s immediate and intimate illness which profoundly altered the paradigm by which Kleinman defines a person’s responsibility to the world. His wife’s illness made concrete (entering into his space and time) hitherto abstract questions of what it means to take care of each other. Most importantly, this concretization merited a sense of urgency. In moving from abstract to concrete, the question becomes “how do I care for Joan right now? She cannot afford to wait.” A palpable sobriety pervaded the entirety of Arthur Kleinman’s lecture. Repeatedly, Kleinman directed our attention to the immediate, to the close-at-hand. I think that the heart of his ethics of social suffering and caregiving comes to life in the very tonality of presence in which he composed his lecture. There was something more that Kleinman communicated than the ethical argument for social suffering and moral obligation which he built up slide after slide. Something that resisted the expectations for the topic at hand. Whatever we all thought that we would gain from such a prolific thinker, what we received was a brilliant man who has experienced the wound of loss. The manner in which he composes his lectures should offer us all a profound insight into a tempered way to endure a life of social and personal suffering, with a level of candor and reverence for the intimate reality that no one is beyond the need for care. In a not so ironic way, Kleinman offered us all a little “wisdom for the art of living”. After a career of struggling to address social suffering on a global scale, the grounding of his message to us all was his personal insight into his experience with his wife’s illness. We can strive to address the moral dysfunction of society at large, but it is no small thing to remind ourselves of the moral imperatives that each moment brings our way in those faces immediately looking back to us.”