Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Beauty Fast

Sterile floors. Sterile hands. Sterile computers. Sterile people. White walls. White ceiling tiles. White tile. All illuminated by fluorescent white lights. Straight halls, every room like every other. Uniforms. Doctors: Blue scrubs, white coats. Patients: hospital gowns (with open back). Beeping monitors. Beeping pagers. Beeping intercom. Beeping, beeping, never-heeded, never-ceasing beeping! An arms race of volume and pitch! No music, not even in doctors’ voices. They are flat and sharp like scalpels. No touch but through breathless gloves. Dry hands, chapped by alcohol sanitizer. And the smell. The musty smell of the hospital interrupted only by periodic nasal stabs by the alcohol on the way in and out of every room. And the occasional whiff of urine or feces or vomit. These are the ingredients of the Hospital Aesthetic.

And so after six days of this, I was hungry, but not for food. I was hungry for something else. My soul needed a drink. I needed transcendence.

I went to church and two lines into the first song, I was struck by the beauty and truth of it and I shed a tear. I felt great joy because of a story that was told. I felt deep humility and power in Communion. I returned home and, it being Sunday and a beautiful day, I had an overwhelming and unexplained urge to go for a bike ride. So I hopped on my bike and rode a few miles down the road. I thought of beautiful places on campus and then biked to them to take in more beauty.

The straight lines and curves of the Stanford arches towered above me, showing me my smallness. The tiny little leaves whirled around me, showing me my greatness. The tan brick, blue sky, yellow sun, green trees, black road, white clouds. The smell of dirt and a thousand thousand plants. Wet hands from sweat, unwashed and greasy from the bike. The bright sun, so bright I had to squint. A full spectrum of light, to make the bluish bulbs of the hospital seem silly, like the photocopy of a diamond. The sun showed through in beams and streaks, through the canopy of the endless oaks.

I ate the experience of today like a starving man. My eyes drank in the light like a lost man drinks an oasis. When I had finished, I was rejuvenated. I had taken my fill. And I am ready to endure another week of sterility.

The body withers away if it lacks food; the immune system weakens, the strength fades. What about a soul? What would happen to a person who is starved of transcendence, who never sees beauty, who never sees something so beautiful that it brings tears? Could this weaken a soul (psyche) as starvation of food weakens a body? What happens to our psychic immune system when we are not properly nourished?


  1. Hospital sterility makes beauty all that much more recognizable. Nice, descriptive post!

  2. I've got to explore the idea of sterility more. It makes me want to re-read CS Lewis' "That Hideous Strength" that has as a theme the contrast between the wonderful dirty life of a normal person and the sterility that comes with hyper-science.

    And yes, separation from anything makes reunion that much more sweet.

  3. Hi David, What a beautiful reflection, poetic and symbolic of the staggered opposition felt between the patients we meet and the poignancy we draw from being at the bedside! It reminds me of something I wrote after spending some time with my student who passed away; I shared part of her story with you this afternoon. I hope to be able to tell you the whole journey, the next time we talk. Accompanying her to one MRI followed by another, I could not help but "see" this (the poem that I will share with you, below). I had just discovered my new faith, when I wrote this poem, so I apologize if it is lacking in the depth and layers that your writing echoes.

    Overwhelming. One breath held, waiting. Exhale at the open.
    The never fading light is my only safe-guard.
    The ever constant darkness is drowning and choking.
    I sit in a box, 3 feet by 3 feet, equidistant from all 14 points of intersection,
    Held immobile, fixed at one point.
    Vulnerable to the stillness that is this empty silence.
    One prayer sent on the wings of the dove, who sings by the window.
    Where are the yellows and softer reds of my day?
    Keep breathing with your wide eyes dreaming,
    Immobility is not confinement of the inner self.
    You may dream and hope, and that is salvation, for now.
    Have faith that this box of white abyss is not without lesson and point.
    Believe that purpose rests the foundation of this box.
    And search for the tools to release the constraints.
    Now, simply rise because you have been commanded by the One who sits at the Right.

  4. SDW,
    No need for apology (or flattery) is necessary! Thank you for sharing such a touching experience. I especially like the line: "Have faith that this box of white abyss is not without lesson and point"

    I think the aesthetic of the hospital that has been ignored for too long. Thank you for your words!