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On the Healing Power of Answers in “Eyes Wide Shut”

 , July 18, 2014

Eyes Wide Shut” by Dr. Stuart Lewis is a rending testimony to the power of recognition. Lewis, an internal medicine physician in New York, argues that knowledge, like medical treatment, has side effects; a career in medicine comes with its own complications.

“Goethe said that, ‘you only see what you know’ and now having spent half my days in the company of the sick, I know life’s trajectory. I see things not as they are but how they can be, might be or will be.” 

Lewis, in an extended, ruminative monologue, reflects on the strange juxtaposition of being enculturated to believe in “the healing power of answers,” to hunt for diagnoses with unflappable tenacity—to keep one’s eyes open wide to all possibilities on the differential. This attitude, he states plainly, is a product of his education. 

But the physician with his eyes open cannot escape the sight of mortality. After having seeing death in all manner of ways, death with grace and peace, death with pain and chaos, and death unexplained, Lewis opines, “Physicians are like big game hunters. Diseases are our prey and each of us holds inside a list of ones we've seen and ones that one day we would like to have in our sights.” The study of disease sobers the person who can recognize that eventually he or she too shall succumb to a malady on one of these textbook pages.

What is it about the recognition of our mortality that calls humankind to art? Arcadia, as described by Pliny the Elder, is the field of gravestones where a shepherd wet his finger with spit and traced his friend's shadow against a tomb to create a new form of art—the world’s first painting. That the first canvas was a gravestone is not without significance; it suggests that art is inspired when humans face their mortality. Destruction engenders its diametric opposite—creation. Art, thus, is one of humankind's most powerful, and most natural, responses to death. Possibly more powerful, even, than medicine with all its so-called answers.

It is no wonder Lewis has taken up his pen. His essay bears line after life of legacy: 

“So much of my career has been about searching for and making diagnoses that I have often missed the cost of being right. I listen, I soothe, but my words, my diagnoses, inexorably alter lives.

I cannot escape that anymore. My patients, some I have known for over twenty years, are getting sick and dying. My surprise at how difficult this is humbles me. All my answers, all my knowledge does not help. I fantasize that closing my eyes, even for a moment, might resurrect our separate innocences. That would help me forget they have entrusted me to unearth their illnesses.

I would also like to forget I've entrusted my doctor to do the same for me.”

Lewis echoes John Donne’s sentiment “And soonest our best men with thee doth go” albeit it with chagrin. He would rather not see this truth. This wizened practitioner offers here a rich perspective on how the language of medicine loses its coherence over time as symbols replace the facts, as the beauty of the common buck replaces the feverish hunt for the zebra. 

Rachel Hammer