Self-Help Books

Harvey Cushing and his wife Kate during a rare down time.

Harvey Cushing and his wife Kate during a rare down time.

You’re good enough! Don’t worry; be happy! You’re a star! Has anyone else noticed this annoying theme in pop music? I notice it every time I drive my kids to one of the many vapid events necessary for a fulfilling childhood.

I think if I had it to do all over again I’d instill in my children a sense of mission. Happiness seekers are so . . . well, shallow.

Let’s take HARVEY CUSHING as an example. I have no idea if he was happy, but he was driven. Driven has gotten a bad rap of late. What did Harvey do? He invented modern neurosurgery is all. Oh, and all the instruments for operating on the brain. He had no time for boredom what with being “a celebrated clinical researcher, an accomplished artist, a fine writer, a passionate collector of books, a medical historian and bibliographer, and the chief founder of the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.”

When did he have time to listen to pop music? Maybe coming from Puritan lineage gave him a leg up on the rest of us pleasure seekers. His father was strict but with a good sense of humor (are you listening fathers?) and his mother was perfect: “Bessie’s mother love was as boundless as her belief in reading, education, music, family loyalty, cleanliness, temperance, and regular attendance at the Presbyterians’ Old Stone Church….None of the Cushing children ever recorded a word of criticism about their perfectly wonderful mother.”

Harvey on a trip to Atlantic City (to study pleasure seekers?)

Harvey on a trip to Atlantic City (to study pleasure seekers?)

Maybe Harvey’s success came from never finding fault with his parents. Have you noticed how time-consuming blaming parents is? So much therapy and complaining and reliving of events! I never fell into this camp. I thought my family was exceedingly good and normal–I had a problem with me. This also was a waste of precious time–and money. It never occurred to me to take out self-help books from the library. I had stacks of good intentions and highlighted plans and prescriptions, but when my brother helped me move boxes loaded with positivity manuals he asked with not a small bit of frustration, “Will you ever be cured? Because these damned books are heavy.”

Imagine time better spent on the classics or neurosurgery. Or writing that novel or volunteering at the soup kitchen (and not just for forced community service hours–high schoolers should rebel at being FORCED).

Harvey also went off to war. He experimented with electromagnets to see if they could extract shrapnel from the brain.  As a young doctor he was mentored by another wonderful doctor named William Osler famous for saying things like: “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.” which seems pretty old hat after watching too many medical dramas (when I could have been establishing a library of self-help books for the public).

William Osler’s son begged his father to open some doors to get him a commission in the military (his eyes weren’t very good). His father did so with trepidation. As sad luck would have it the young man was mortally wounded and Harvey was the one to try to save him.

It must have weighed heavily on him (as it did on Dr. Osler for the rest of his life) and it is true that sitting in your basement anxiously awaiting the next superhero video game you pre-ordered allows for a certain safety, a certain escape from the terrors of realizing a wasted life and a total lack of gumption, but I thank God I threw away–yes in the regular trash without recycling–all of those damned self-help books.

A Happy Moment

A Happy Moment

Harvey contributed. He may have been blessed with genius, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that life is more than just happiness.

Photos courtesy YALE MEDICAL HISTORY LIBRARY