The doctor entered the room, looking at a medical chart with a somber face. The patient, sitting uncomfortably on the exam table in nothing but his boxer shorts, grew nervous at the doctor’s grave demeanor.
“I have some bad news,” the doctor said, and sat down on the little wheeled stool.
“Am I sick?” the patient asked, “I just came in for a check-up. I don’t feel sick.”
“No, no,” the doctor replied, “I’m afraid … you are healthy.”
The patient sighed in relief, “Oh, doc, don’t scare me like that. That’s not a nice joke. I was afraid you were about to say that I was going to die.”
The doctor look surprised, and then sympathetic. “You are,” he said.
The patient’s smile vanished.
The doctor continued, “I’m afraid you don’t quite understand. You see, I’ve checked over everything, and you are alive, sir.”
“And that’s not a good thing?”
The doctor sighed. He hated giving bad news.
“The life expectancy for someone who has been diagnosed as alive, sir, is somewhere between seventy and eighty years. Some people live longer, some much shorter. There’s really no way to tell. And in the end, there’s no way to prevent death.”
The patient considered this information.
“The other danger associated with life,” the doctor continued, “is an increased susceptibility to illness and injury. You could be subject to either without warning. There’s no way to prevent them absolutely.”
“Now, look, doc, you must be mistaken. I’ve never heard of this before,” the patient burst out, panicked.
“Yes, yes,” said the doctor, “unfortunately, life is one of the most misunderstood medical conditions. Some studies indicate that as much as one-hundred percent of the population is affected. But even though so many people have it, most people don’t really recognize the fact that it is a fatal condition. Also, most people think that death can be prevented by medicine.”
The patient’s face went pale, “You mean…” he stammered, “it can’t?”
The doctor cursed himself silently for his tactlessness. “I’m sorry, but yes,” he said, “the fact remains that medicine cannot prevent death that occurs as a result of being alive. The fatality rate is one hundred percent.”
Doctor and patient sat silently for a moment. The doctor thought of the many patients to whom he had given this diagnosis over the years. He had discovered that there were two kinds of people: those who laughed when told they were going to die, and those, like this patient, who took it very hard. The latter, he’d found, often ended up depressed, alcoholic, or just plain cranky. So he’d learned to try to turn them into the ones who laughed.
It was the ones who laughed who showed him how best to handle the disease of life. Their eyes would glaze, and then they would say, “Of course I’m going to die! Everyone does!” But he’d observed that once they left the clinic, they lived as though they’d forgotten the news he’d given them. They tended to be very busy people. They remained happy, as long as they were occupied.
There was another reason he preferred the happy, busy patients. They came back to his clinic repeatedly, asking him to fix little problems they had: minor blemishes, losing a few pounds, vague aches and pains that they found to be tremendously important. When he did what they asked, they always gushed their gratitude and sent him worshipful thank-you cards. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d been told that he was a savior.
“So there’s nothing you can do?” the patient asked, interrupting the doctor’s thoughts. The doctor pulled out his prescription pad.
“The first thing to do is to write you a prescription for some antidepressants and sleeping pills.” “And that will cure me?” the patient asked.
The doctor debated with himself as to how to answer the question. “It will help,” he said simply, without adding ‘to make you forget.’ He finished writing on his pad, and handed a list to the patient.
“This is a list of home remedies that some of my other patients with this condition have used. It seems to help them if taken in high doses.” The patient read the list: television, shopping, parties, fitness, earning degrees, sports…
“Interestingly enough,” the doctor continued, “the two groups with the least risk of life seem to be fans of daytime television and doctoral students. Many of them show no signs of being alive at all.”
“So these are home cures?” the patient asked.
“Home treatments,” the doctor answered.
“These will help me?”
The doctor nodded. He leaned in close to the patient and spoke in a low voice, “And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I myself have the condition.”
The patient looked surprised. “How do you handle it?” he asked.
The doctor gestured around the room. “My work,” he said. “I go home late at night, and come in early in the morning. There might be no final cure, but at least this treatment allows me to cope with such a terrible affliction.”
The patient looked doubtful for a moment. “Is there no permanent solution? Death cannot be defeated?” he asked.
The doctor sighed. For a moment the same doubt flickered in him. There had to be a real solution, didn’t there? Wasn’t there a better answer? He quickly put the thought away. He looked up at the patient, smiling. “This is the best modernity has to offer.”