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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.



Sample Reading

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 experiences: pain.

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.~



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