Pathei Mathos: What I Relearned the Last 12 Months


Greek tragedy often ends with a succession of personal disasters that doom an Oedipus or Ajax -- apparently part of a divinely inspired nemesis (retribution) to pay back personal hubris (overweening pride).

The latter flaw seems to grow and grow until fate strikes the arrogant at the most opportune but still unlikely moment: a Nixon sweeping to a landslide victory in 1972, only to self-destruct over the cover-up of a two-bit, needless burglary. It apparently at last brought out his long-held character shortcoming (hamartia), theretofore seemingly either not too serious or at least adroitly managed.

The Sophoclean idea of eironeia (irony) -- Oedipus cannot see until he is blind in the manner of the blind, but all-seeing Tiresias, whom he damned as sightless before his own blindness -- suggests that the nature of one’s fate is often tragically ironic.

The swashbuckling George S. Patton, who braved death in his drive to Germany and was worried about his role in a peacetime world, was paralyzed in a minor traffic accident shortly after the Allied victory -- and on the day before he was to go home and leave postwar Europe for good. He died not on the battlefield, but painfully in bed in a military hospital in Germany.

The idea of karma within the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism is somewhat similar to Greek tragedy, though more geared to action rather than attitudes causing future accounting for past behaviors. Modern Western religions also share somewhat in both Eastern and Western notions of payback, even while on Earth before the final accounting in the hereafter.

Still, it certainly seems innately human (and thus egocentric) to try to make sense of present bad and good fortune by reviewing causation through one’s prior thoughts and deeds. The problem with mostly positive moral introspection is the narcissistic element: good or bad things don’t just happen to a single individual, but harm many of the uninvolved or innocent around him. Why do the innocents of Thebes have to suffer plague for Oedipus’s hubris?

It is all narcissism to think that catastrophes center on one person’s behavior, even if earned, and especially when they hurt innocent others. Aeschylus seems cruel to talk of pathei mathos, learning from pain.

I can see the logic of tragic collective vengeance, but even then, I don’t quite believe that a divine plan led to Hitler raging in his suicidal bunker as the logical retribution to his sick Nuremberg rants a decade -- and six million innocents gassed --  earlier.

At best, all we can do, I think in our ignorance of causation, is to cover our bets and tread lightly and remain observant -- keeping humble and modest in occasional good fortune (given so often that our blessings turn out to be dependent on the work of other friends and benefactors), while staying resolute in more frequent times of chaos and disaster, to be able to help and offer sanctuary to others.

It is wise to remember the good dead and emulate their example rather than to be caught up with the mediocre of the present. I certainly spend more time recalling the voice of my mother than listening to the televised psychodramas of our elite. Faith and transcendence in the end matter most, whether for us who believe in God and an eternal soul, or for the more agnostic humanists who trust that one’s good works now can affect others following them, from raising good children to planting an olive tree.

I’ve been trying to sort such thoughts out after the most terrible past 12 months. Everyone has horrific seasons. Nothing seems worse than losing parents. Mine died far too early, my mother from a malignant meningioma that first struck her at 64 while an appellate court judge; my indestructible father from a stroke at 75. Like most, I’ve had a few scrapes, a variety of accidents, diseases, and operations in some scary places.

But all one’s health seems the minor melodrama that it always really was. My granddaughter Lila was born December 5, 2013. Something seemed wrong almost at once. An adroit diagnosis at Stanford Medical Center found neonatal cholestasis, a severe malfunction of the liver, involving spikes in conjugated bilirubin. For days we researched the likely and quite scary causes -- biliary atresia, alpha 1 syndrome, and worse. None had good prognoses. All had scary names.

But 10% of the infant cholestasis cases were in the literature dubbed “idiopathic” and resolved eventually. No one knew why. And so miraculously did tiny Lila’s -- or so we thought.

Her bilirubin returned to normal; she survived and she seemed to recover. But by six or seven months something else was clearly wrong, or rather "delayed." By March 2015 she was far behind in terms of walking and talking. We spent hours each night reading about post-cholestasis syndromes in almost every American and European journal we could find. Surely that mysterious liver disease had caused the delay -- and thus catch-up would follow?

Not really.

More strange symptomology followed. Three weeks ago, after genetic testing, doctors diagnosed her with something known as Smith-Magenis syndrome, described as a “deletion of genetic material from a specific region of chromosome 17 (17p11.2). Although this region contains multiple genes, recently researchers discovered that the loss of one particular gene the retinoic acid induced 1 or RAI1 is responsible for most of the characteristic features of this condition.”

Previously SMS was often thought to be a severe subset of either Down’s syndrome or autism. The strange and multifarious symptoms are too numerous to list here. A wonderful foundation does its best to fight for help for this tragic syndrome and I am going to try to support it according to my station.

And yet a wonderful thing arose throughout this ordeal. The more the bleak diagnoses and worse prognoses piled on, the more Lila smiled and exhibited the most outgoing and warm personality. (Was it due to the SMS trait of not feeling physical pain, or its associated symptom of natural exuberance with a tendency to hurt oneself rather than others?)