Thursday, December 4, 2008

Habit becomes character

Theodore Dalrymple writes that English culture has changed - and not for the better - in "The Quivering Upper Lip" in City Journal. His observations about the older generation of Englishmen remind me of my own American parents, born early in the last century.
.... No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”

From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.

I experienced other instances of this modesty. I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead.

I often remember the nobility of this quite ordinary man’s conduct and words. He wanted an appropriate, but only an appropriate, degree of commiseration from me; in his view, which was that of his generation and culture, it was a moral requirement that emotion and sentiment should be expressed proportionately, and not in an exaggerated or self-absorbed way. My acquaintance with him was slight; therefore my regret, while genuine, should be slight. (Oddly enough, my regret has grown over the years, with the memory.) Further, he considered it important that he should not embarrass me with any displays of emotion that might discomfit me. A man has to think of others, even when he is dying.

My wife, also a doctor, worked solely among the old, and found them, as I did, considerate even when suffering, as well as humorous and lacking in self-importance. Her patients were largely working-class — a refutation of the idea, commonly expressed, that the cultural ideal that I have described characterized only the upper echelons of society.

Gradually, but overwhelmingly, the culture and character of British restraint have changed into the exact opposite. Extravagance of gesture, vehemence of expression, vainglorious boastfulness, self-exposure, and absence of inhibition are what we tend to admire now — and the old modesty is scorned. .... [more]
The Quivering Upper Lip by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal Autumn 2008

1 comment:

  1. The article is quite good and chronicles what happens when public morality and decorum are destroyed in favor of unstinted personal expression in any form.

    The question I have to ask, in response to this, is whether the author does right by condoning the drunkenness of American college students just because they stayed inside their frat house? Morality in public is order. Morality in private is praiseworthy. American culture is sliding off the same cliff as British culture, just in different ways because of our individualism.

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