Friday, September 17, 2010


When we talk about serious illness, the conversation inevitably turns toward something called “quality of life.” Nice phrase, but what exactly does it mean?

Recall Robert Pirsig’s 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Subtitled “An Inquiry Into Values,” the book explored this Q word. What, after all, defines the “quality” experiences that together constitute “quality of life?” As he roamed the United States on his Suzuki, Pirsig developed the notion that quality is bound inextricably to attention. The more completely we focus on anything we do—anything: changing a tire, knitting, writing—the more we learn who we are and how to proceed. But don’t take my word for it. Ask spiritual practitioners around the world.

If quality is proportionate to attention, we’re in trouble, since the past decade or two we’ve sped in the opposite direction, “multitasking.” We believe multitasking must be a good thing since folks everywhere declare pride in their ability to do it. It’s even become a requisite for employment. Studies show, though, that very few people do it well. 

You can ride one horse better than two, and this isn’t just idle philosophizing.

A friend got an x-ray to monitor a small tumor that’s been idling in her lung. During the procedure she heard her two technicians in a heated personal conflict. The x-ray suggested that her tumor was slightly larger than two months before. Now she wonders if that’s so or if the technicians, distracted by their argument, misprogrammed the apparatus. Her oncologist agrees with her, and has scheduled another study next month.

Another friend was being treated by her chiropractor, who was handed his cell phone by an assistant. While the chiropractor manipulated my friend’s spine, he bargained for a used car. My friend, enraged, wanted to say something about this but if she angered him, she imagined, he might injure her.

Still another friend complained, “I saw my doctor, but didn’t really. I mean, while he asked me questions he constantly had his back to me, typing on his laptop.”

I hope we agree that these were less than optimal healing atmospheres. My regular rant here is that healing—the diminishment of suffering—is hastened by intimate human contact. I'm beginning to fear, though, that contact may be an endangered species.

Ironically, contact was at one time the only medicine available. The earliest European hospital--and the model for many others--was the Hotel Dieu in Paris, founded in the seventh century. The staff of this “Hostel of God” consisted for a thousand years not of employees but of nuns dedicated to healing. MRIs, antibiotics, aspirin, and even reliable knowledge being unknown, patients received the remedies of their time along with more effective treatment: adequate food and shelter, quiet, dignity, stained-glass imagery, and the care of sisters trained in attention.

If you’ve ever experienced an instance when you didn’t get a healthcare practitioner’s full attention, how did you feel? If you concluded that’s just the way things are, please reconsider. We practitioners multitask only because that’s what we were trained to do. Believe me, it minimizes our own quality of life, but we literally don’t know better...unless you tell us. Ask your chiropractor or nurse or doctor, “Have you heard about monotasking?”

1 comment:

  1. Love this post. Loved "Zen and the Art..." which I read as a philosophy major in college, and hadn't thought about it since then. Thanks for the reminder. It will be on the top of my list to re-read.

    Thanks too for "monotasking". Hadn't heard that word before. Almost as good as "scanxiety"!