Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Sen. Ted Kennedy is always said to be 'fighting' his cancer. In the New York Times, for example, Bob Herbert implores him to 'hang in there' and uses the words 'fought' and 'struggled' about his own father's response to cancer. The idea of fighting cancer - or any other disease - is now a standard media trope; it is even used about newly born babies. It is a word that fills a rhetorical gap. Reporting simply that somebody 'has' or 'is suffering from' cancer would seem to fall short of what the news requires. Worse, I imagine, would be 'has calmly accepted his fate' or 'placed himself in the hands of his doctors'. Worst of all would be 'is raging bitterly against his disease'. Personally, I have never seen anybody in any meaningful sense 'fight' a serious disease. I have seen people behave with greater or lesser equanimity, but never fight. How, after all, would one do it? Possibly the idea of fighting a disease is sustained by the evidence - ambiguous but persuasive - that one's state of mind can occasionally affect the course of a disease or it is simply a product of the fact that, nowadays, one can, indeed, spend one's last months in a desperate rush through the supermarket of possible cures. Either way, people have arrived at the notion that one can deploy mental strength as a weapon and that this is a virtuous thing to do. This supersedes a previous virtue - that of dignity and serenity in the face of death. Mental strength is, in this case, not a weapon but a consolation. A moment's thought will reveal the superior response. It is better to die consoled than defeated.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:22 am