As a pediatrician, I have a seemingly endless collection of hilarious stories. A toddler came in for a visit carrying along his security object—a spatula. Later that day, an otherwise perfectly well-adjusted mother admitted to me that she is terrified of cantaloupes. Then I treated a teenage patient who had been camping and made the fateful and unenviable decision to use poison ivy as toilet paper.
But there is another, darker side. Like all doctors, I also can relate experiences of heart-wrenching tragedy. When a mother left her apartment for five minutes to buy milk, she forgot to shut off her stove. The apartment caught fire, and three of her four young children died. I tried unsuccessfully for twenty minutes to revive one of the victims.
The unusual and the tragic make for compelling stories. But sometimes they overshadow the hidden wonders behind the seemingly ordinary.
Caitlyn in Room 5 has strep throat. I prescribe amoxicillin. Lucas in Room 2 is here for routine immunizations. Ho-hum. But here’s the hidden wonder. At the turn of the last century, rheumatic fever complications from strep throat were the number one cause of death in school-age children in this country. And during the first half of the twentieth century, polio killed tens of thousands of people in the United States alone, and crippled tens of thousands more. Now, because of the success of science, polio is close to being completely eliminated in the world, and we hardly see rheumatic fever in this country anymore. Just a few generations ago, Caitlyn and Lucas may have been victims.
Look around and the mind reels at the bounty of scientific wonders. Cell phones, the Internet, a hot morning shower, air conditioning, and of course those personal favorites—the snooze alarm and birth control. Many of us in developed countries think of such conveniences and comforts as entitlements, but our luxuries and freedoms go beyond those of sultans in years past, and far surpass the lives of the disease-racked, underprivileged masses and persecuted laborers that constituted most of humanity throughout history.
Of course science isn’t all rosy. Scientific knowledge produced nuclear weapons and environmental crises that threaten to end the whole party. But the choice is not one between some Pollyanna blinded by the dazzling triumphs of science and technology on one hand, and on the other some zealot blindfolded by supernatural myths or a Luddite who thinks the world was a better place before science came along. (Well before our ancestors performed their first science experiment, there were at least five catastrophic extinction events on Earth where over 50 percent of all animals died.) The best approach is first to take off the blindfolds, but then get a good pair of shades and see that it is within humanity’s power to show judgment and make the world better and safer.
We so easily take for granted this extraordinary moment in history. The acceptance and success of science and public health has doubled the life expectancy in much of the world since the mid-1800s. But the hidden wonders in our world are not just scientific and they’re not just in medicine. We live in a world built by natural processes over time, with areas of extraordinary human innovation and life-changing social progress. In much of the world, the success of reason and compassion over superstition and tradition has helped foster conditions for freedom and wonder to blossom. Fantasies are exciting—and have their place. In movies, in fiction, in the middle of a boring class. In moments of creative inspiration. Or in the bedroom. But private superstitions have no role in public policy. Our non-rational sides should inspire and inform reality, not dictate our perception of it. Rules from an ancient fairytale shouldn’t dictate what is or is not okay. Public policy and morality should be the domain of reason, evidence, freedom, experience, and compassion.
So when facing loss of innocent life in a house fire, cry openly. Allow yourself to hurt deeply. Comfort the bereaved. But don’t say “it was meant to be” or “they’re in a better place.” Go out and promote stoves with smoke-sensing, automatic shut-off valves. The fact that we have the ability, through conscious choice and action, to change the world and make it a better place is a fundamental wonder of being human. It’s what being good is. Not for the benefit of some other world, but for this, our one world; not for some supernatural being, but for our fellow beings.