Percy: The Wondering Physician-Philosopher

In: Walker Percy, Philosopher

Richard Gunderman

A woman lies in a coma, having been admitted to the intensive care unit following a beating by her lead pipe-wielding boyfriend. She is alive, but her neurologic prognosis is uncertain. The chaplain assigned to the case hovers outside her door, afraid to enter. A man of peace, he anticipates that the moment he steps inside he will be engulfed in the family’s rage. Their loved one bruised, swollen, and unconscious, they will want nothing more than vengeance.

Finally, after reciting a prayer, the chaplain takes the plunge. Inside, the family is clustered around the bed. As soon as he introduces himself, the victim’s brother approaches him, takes him aside, and whispers a request that he offer a prayer. To the chaplain’s surprise, however, the prayer he has in mind is not for the perpetrator to be brought to justice. Instead he asks the chaplain to lead the family in a prayer of forgiveness.

Reactions to such stories differ. Some respond with disbelief that anyone clustered around the bed of a battered loved one could possibly seek mercy for the wrongdoer. Others express a sense of indignation, seeing in forgiveness a failure to respect and protect the interests of a vulnerable person. Still others, and I suspect Walker Percy might have been counted among them, respond to such accounts with a sense of wonder.

Wonder at what? Wonder at the capacity of human beings, at least on rare occasions, to rise above base expectations, to put the needs of others ahead of narrow self-interest, and to respond to fear and anger not with amplification but in a spirit of compassion. While no walk of life enjoys a monopoly on the opportunity to witness unpredictable but ultimately laudable responses, those who practice medicine are presented with more than our share.

The opportunity to witness humanity up close and personal makes Percy’s turn away from the practice of medicine to a philosophical calling all the more puzzling. Occasioned at least proximately when he contracted tuberculosis while working as an intern at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Percy’s long convalescence provided him with an opportunity to read great works of philosophical literature by Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky. He would never complete his medical training.

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