In Tamara Green’s most excellent text, The Greek And Latin Roots Of English, she opens with a ditty which was popular even when I was a lad in school. It goes like this:
Latin is a dead language
As you can plainly see
It killed off all the Romans
And now it’s killing me.
Now, I don’t believe a word of this mediocre iambic tetrameter, but it sprung to mind the other day when I was in line to buy coffee. I was chatting with a friend who has nothing to do with medicine – soto voce, no braggidocio –when a young man about half my age injected himself into our conversation.“Aren’t you Greg Henry,” he asked? Without missing a beat, I pulled out my wallet, checked the name on my driver’s license, showed it to him and retorted in the affirmative: “I am indeed, Sir. And why do you inquire about me?” “I’d recognize that voice anywhere. I’m an emergency physician and listen to multiple medical education audio programs on my way to work.” This was all fine, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what he said next. “You should stick to the neurology stuff and medical legal cases, as this is something you do know about. But your Emergency Physicians Monthly column is getting unbearable, particularly the last few, which have had nothing to do with medicine. Nobody cares about Latin and only the ignorant believe there is a God. And the one about talking to your dead dog was ridiculous.”
I only had two choices at this moment in time. One was the Texas approach – guns blazing. Or I could politely thank him for his readership, acknowledge that there are different strokes for different folks, and wish him the best in his career. I chose the latter, mostly. I acknowledged his readership and then gave him a traditional Roman blessing: Manducare stercore et mori; which translates to: Eat shit and die.
My problems after this brief encounter were three. First, I had to explain to my friend that I write this column and not everybody is a supporter – that includes my family. My friend, who was more surprised than I was with this blowhard’s response, said: “I thought you wrote for a medical journal. So what is your column about anyway?” “It’s about anything I want it to be about, within the bounds of good taste.” He seemed to be satisfied with that and we resumed our meaningless banter.
But my second problem was deeper. Maybe this guy was right and I have become a pathetic caricature of myself. Oh, God, say it isn’t so. I have become miserably redundant, an intellectual has-been. I say that understanding that being a has-been is considerably better than being a never-was.
My third dilemma was: Should I answer this person, not as a single entity, but as the stalking-horse representing the everyman in my readership? This column is my answer, my apologia, to use the original Greek meaning of that word.
First, my Latin motto diatribe was written with only a modicum of jest. The Greek/Latin basis of our language is profound. The Oxford Dictionary people claim that the total number of English words, although it is fluctuating moment to moment, is around 650,000. Seventy percent of the basic vocabulary is based on Greek, Latin affixes and roots. As you move into technical, scientific and engineering fields, that number grows to 90 percent. And if you’re naming chemical compounds, it’s a hundred percent!
High school graduates in this country are getting worse and worse at language skills. A good high school graduate has control of about 15,000 words. That’s atrocious. Get this straight: We don’t teach Latin to speak – unless you’re showing off at a cocktail party – we study it to understand our own language. To include English with the Romance languages produces the largest living language family in the world. Lingua mortua – osculari asinum: “Dead language – kiss my ass.”
We also study Greek and Latin to understand how the ancient civilizations thought about the world. Their view of existence forms the backbone of philosophy. When we study their view of meaning, we study ourselves.
On to discussions of the existence of God. This column was not a true debate but rather reflections on cosmology, which have dominated the discussions and belief structure since the time homo sapiens became pictographically symbolic. Medicine is a human contact sport, not to be played by the faint of heart. The fact that some of us choose to carry on a discussion of the forces that drive the human condition onward and supplies meaning to our lives is the same quest and same question which have motivated and invigorated the race since its beginning. The cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell, a scholar who I can both love and hate, once commented on the fact that: Our gods and heroes, our myths and legends, our search for meaning are our “rapture of being alive.” It connects us with all other humans who have ever walked the earth. It is difficult to truly care for those leaving this life unless we understand what they believed about their coming into it.
If our existence is just a series of Sisyphean tasks, we miss much of the point in the human experience of which physicians play a limited but prescient role. Therefore, I will defend my right to participate in disputation as to the existence of a dimension beyond the classic four that gives us hope for both fellowship and redemption.
The relevance of a belief structure is more important and more pressing today than it has ever been. We stand as guardians in the watchtower of the wall between life and death. Knowing how to help and when to help are the central core of the profession of healing. I can only tell you, my much younger colleague and critic, that a practice devoid of these questions is not a calling but a job. Without invoking Pascal’s wager, our concern for the self-perceived souls of our patients is not a waste of time. And I would ask you to rethink whether such discussions are meaningless. I for one do not think so.
Third and lastly, my dog Tucker. I would hope he was viewed as a metaphor for all those frequent times when we are alone with our thoughts, unprotected from the self-righteousness and bravado we often present and the hurly-burly of the everyday lives we lead. We all wear masks that make us seem so certain, so self-confident, so all-knowing. But in each person there is a conundrum which surrounds our core being, where we are allowed to openly discuss the actions we took that day.
We all need someone to talk to about our failures and our doubts. Someone who can hear us and not judge us. Someone who can sense how badly you feel and have no need to pontificate as to your indignities. If you own a dog and you have never confided in him or her, I feel sorry for you.
The students return to Ann Arbor this week. As I drove by the South Quadrangle, where 50 years ago today I moved in as a freshman, I got to see the incredible piles of “stuff” being unloaded by anxious parents. You could tell before you saw the children pick up their bags, which ones belonged to young men, and which to young women. Almost to a person, the girls all had a big stuffed dog, a teddy bear, an elephant or some cuddly something with which they were unashamedly moving in to their new dorm rooms. Not a single guy I saw that day did the same. Not even in this day and age – we are not that liberated, I promise you.
I remember moving in as a freshman. A friend from high school drove me the hour to Ann Arbor and I took my three mediocre bags to my room, unpacked them and stared at the wall for a while. All these other students seemed smarter than me, better backgrounds, better looking, more money. How was I going to be good enough to stay, let alone succeed? I was from an immigrant family. The very night before I’d worked a midnight shift at the Great Lakes Steel Mill in Detroit. I just wasn’t their kind. I was in a word “afraid.” I was frightened to the core. God, I wish I’d had a dog to hold.