The Urban Sherpa - a blog by Christopher DeWan

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Read Work and Other Essays, a collection of nonfiction by Christopher DeWan.

Parable of the Salve rating=3


Let's say, you have a condition.

You have a rare, debilitating medical condition that causes you chronic, widespread pain, and you have had it as long as you can remember. Your condition is hard to describe: sometimes the pain is in your stomach, sometimes in your liver, sometimes in your heart, sometimes in your neck. Sometimes you feel it acutely over all your skin. Doctors have examined you up and down, and they can find no cause for your pain, no symptoms, no clues that might lead to relief. They prescribe pain killers which have fleeting, incidental effect. The doctors want very much to help you. But they can't.

You go on like this for some time. You begin to lose hope that anyone will ever be able to understand your condition, or to help. Then, one day, you are visiting a new doctor, explaining your condition (as you've done fifty times before)—only this time, the doctor nods and says, "I understand. I know exactly what you need." She reaches into her medicine cabinet and fetches a small jar. "This salve will make you feel better," she says.

It is miraculous. You have lived with your condition for so long, you'd given up hope that you might ever feel good again. The salve changes everything. With the salve, you forget your pain. You live happy and free, and every few days, you return to the doctor for another application.

Years go by—so long that you forget what life was like before the salve. So long that you begin to doubt there ever was a "condition."

But you begin to notice a change: the doctor is applying the medicine in smaller doses. Your weekly appointments become monthly, and the pain begins to creep back into your belly, your skin, your bones. You return to the doctor, desperate and demanding. She looks at you sadly. She tells you that she is sorry, but she has no more salve to give you.

The pain comes back now. It is familiar, like an old friend. It is hard to describe: it is sometimes in your stomach, sometimes in your liver, sometimes in your heart. The pain comes back, worse than before, because now it is augmented by your memory of the salve—by your dreams of relief. Through your pain, you work to remind yourself that it is not the doctor who gave you the pain, by withholding the salve; she is not the cause of the pain; but rather, it is the doctor who relieved the pain, if only for a while....