Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics
Chapter 9: Living "Immediately"
In the previous chapter we examined human vulnerability
and suffering. Readings there invited us to consider their
essential qualities and to wonder whether, much as we fear
them, a life without them might prove, though more secure,
in some ways poorer.
In this chapter we consider human activities uncompromised
by suffering: our appreciative awareness of the world and
our fellow creatures, and our aspiring actions in the world
and with our fellow human beings. When all goes well, we can
be at work directly, wholeheartedly, and honestly, fully present
and engaged in what we do: we can exercise our powers without
mediation or intermediaries; we can live immediately.
Yet human beings have always faced many possible impediments
that threaten to disrupt our activities and our full and immediate
engagement with the world. Of special interest to bioethics
are those impediments that might arise, paradoxically, from
those technological interventions that aim to alleviate suffering
or to augment our native powers and improve our natural abilities.
To some extent, the problem of mediation and distortion
is a hazard of technology itself, wherever we apply it. When
we solve any problem technologically, we risk disconnecting
our selves from our immediate experience. This is a risk we
usually gladly run for the sake of the desired solution or
benefit. Yet technological remedies for the weaknesses of
our bodies and minds bring this risk home, as it were, to
our very selves. On this terrain, the hazards of mediation
for “real life” may become very significant.
To live immediately and genuinely is a challenge under the
best of circumstances. Even without technology, it is hard
for all of us, in much that we do, to experience life directly,
wholly, and without distortion. Yet if living immediately
is essential to living well, we should try to think about
how we might accomplish it and how we might best defend its
possibility against distorting intrusions, including those
that accompany the great gifts of biotechnology.
We begin with an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,
in which an individual loses himself in productive physical
labor. Next, an excerpt from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Child’s
Play” compares the way children play and adults fantasize.
Stevenson, like Tolstoy, reminds us what it means to lose
oneself in an experience, and reminds us, too, that this is
a gift we tend to lose as we mature.
Our next six readings describe a variety of obstacles to
living immediately. In “Pain Has an Element of Blank,” poet
Emily Dickinson shows us the problem posed by the constant
intrusion of the body, in its most compelling form: pain.
Walt Whitman (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”) and Walker
Percy (excerpts from “The Loss of the Creature”) present us
with the barriers caused by information and an intellectual
detachment. Next, a pair of excerpts, one ancient and one
modern, explore mediation by drugs; both a famous passage
from The Odyssey of Homer and a contemporary
passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Drugstore Athlete” underscore
the enduring nature of this temptation.
Finally, an essay from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries
of a Solitary Walker offers a vision—idealized? possible?
attainable?—of a life free of these various barriers.
Pain Has an Element of Blank
by Emily Dickinson
One barrier to self-forgetfulness is
the near-constant intrusion of the body, with its needs,
limitations, and unceasing sensations. In this brief poem,
Emily Dickinson considers the most overwhelming of all bodily
What is “the element of blank”? What
is wiped out or concealed?
Pain is a direct experience that, according
to Dickinson, seems to fill the present; nothing interposes
itself between the poet and her pain. Does this mean that
a person in pain is living immediately? If so, how might
you square this with Tolstoy’s view of living immediately
as complete happiness?
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.~