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BMJ. 2007 April 14; 334(7597): 803.
PMCID: PMC1852055
Between the Lines

Life unlimited

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

It is an old hobby horse of mine that what drives many people to seek medical assistance, when they have nothing much wrong with them, is not so much fear of illness as fear of meaninglessness. This is what drives them also to such extravagant and obvious self destructiveness: for the crises that result from their conduct at least lend to the vacuity of their existence the patina of drama. Unfortunately, we doctors are not experts in the meaning of life.

The well known literary academic Terry Eagleton has just published a book entitled The Meaning of Life (Oxford University Press). I do not think it is any criticism of it that it does not provide a definitive answer to the conundrum, that we could profitably push into our patients' hands and say, “Here, read this,” in the pious expectation that, having read it, they will not bother us again with their trifling complaints.

Here I must confess, in the spirit of declaring an interest, to an irrational and base prejudice against academics and intellectuals who publish under diminutives of their own first name. I mean, who could have taken seriously A Treatise of Human Nature or The Decline and Fall if they had been written by Dave Hume and Ted Gibbon?

But if Professor Eagleton's occasional lapses into politico-linguistic correctness irritated me, and I found his conclusions utopian and therefore fatuous, I was none the less impressed by his lucidity and (more surprisingly) his fair mindedness. He claims not to be a philosopher, but he does a fair imitation of one.

A passage in the book that stirred strong emotion in me, not because I disagreed with it (disagreement with an author is one of the pleasures of reading), but because, inadvertently, it returned me to my childhood, concerned disability:

“In Aristotle's eyes, the reason why you could not be really happy sitting in a machine [that delivered pleasurable stimuli directly to the brain] all your life is much the same reason why you could not be fully happy confined to a wheelchair . . . it is simply that to be disabled is to be stymied in one's ability to realize certain powers and capacities . . . ”

As a child, my closest friend, from whom I was virtually inseparable for several years, was struck down by polio. It was all the more tragic because it happened immediately before the advent of immunisation against polio. He was rendered paraplegic; my parents, as I now realise, lived in mortal terror that I would be similarly affected.

His mother, however, was a staunch Christian Scientist, whose black, limp bound Key to the Scriptures by Mrs Eddy was a mysterious presence throughout my childhood, and would have no truck with illness, which she regarded as a kind of error. She expected him to make no concession to it. “His sticks,” as we called his crutches, became just a normal part of our lives. I can still hear in my mind's ear the clicking sound they made as we went everywhere together.

He went on to have a vastly more interesting career than the majority without his disability. Here, then, is a paradox, if a fortunate one: no one would choose such a disability, and yet it did not in the least prevent him from living life as fully as any of his contemporaries.

The solution, perhaps, is this: that, within quite wide limits, limitations do not limit us. Infinity is our glory, as it is our burden.

No one would choose such a disability, and yet it did not prevent him from living as fully as any of his contemporaries


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