Green Knight’s Lessons for Doctors

Friday

This post is coming to you from the cardiac unit, 8th floor, of the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. My three days here have me thinking about the literature I teach to future doctors, especially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The poem comes to mind because it was the subject of an essay written by a pre-med student in last semester’s Introduction to Literature class. I just wrote a medical school letter of recommendation for graduating senior Kyle Reichard, which got me thinking about how the medieval romance could make him a better doctor. Here’s what I came up with.

In his essay, Kyle wrote of the dangers of perfectionism. Gawain thinks he must be a perfect Christian knight at all times, which means shrugging off fears of death and overriding sexual desires. He thinks that he must not care about his impending fate, that he must resist sexual invitations, and that he must not flinch when the executioner’s axe is descending. He is deeply ashamed when he comes up short.

Kyle is attuned to perfectionism’s problems. As a child, he put tremendous pressure upon himself to be perfect because he thought doing so would keep his parents from separating. Such magical thinking allowed him to believe he wasn’t powerless, even though he was. His perfectionism led to a certain degree of success, in his studies and on the soccer field, although ultimately self-pressure became an impediment. You can’t play creative soccer if you’re constantly afraid of making a mistake, and the same goes for life in general.

If we think of the Green Knight as symbolic of Gawain’s inner nature, then it is the part of us that reminds us that we are inhuman when we attempt to override our natural impulses. Not being a robot, Gawain gives way in the end, underhandedly accepting the green girdle that he is told will save his life and shrinking when his head is on the block. The Green Knight doesn’t fault him for being afraid of death. He just chastises him for denying rather than openly acknowledging his fears.

If Kyle gets into medical school, he will find himself in a place where perfection is the norm and is even rewarded. Too many doctors feel that they must push their humanity under and become diagnostic machines. Afraid of being overwhelmed by all the swirling emotions that accompany sickness, too many develop steely exteriors.

And indeed, like knights going off to battle, a certain amount of hardening is necessary. The Green Knight doesn’t dispute that. He just knows Gawain has pushed himself too far, denying his nature to a dangerous degree. His goal is to put Gawain back in touch with his humanity.

It’s interesting to think of Gawain as a patient, perhaps as a man who has learned that is terminally ill and will die in a year’s time. At first he downplays the news (“good men can but try”) and goes about his daily business. His journey through the forest symbolizes his psychological process, with death and live becoming ever more vivid that closer he gets to his rendezvous with the Green Knight.

At first he goes about doing the normal things that knights do, such as fighting wild animals and savage men. He’s trying to live as though nothing has changed. Suddenly, however, there seems no point in his accomplishments, and the poet doesn’t even bother to describe them. In the castle, meanwhile, Gawain can’t admit how he is repulsed by the vivid images of animal slaughter or enticed by the lady’s seduction attempts. He shuts down his feelings because they remind him too much of the death that is impending and the life that he will lose. The Lord and Lady’s “tests” can be seen as efforts to put Gawain in touch with his biology.

Unfortunately, Gawain believes that a perfect knight must rise above his feelings and can’t admit how frightened and angry he is. We catch a glimpse of those feelings in his tormented dreams, however.

Only when the Lady presents Gawain with her life-saving girdle and when the Lord presents him with the immanence of death (the descending axe) does Gawain realize that he has feelings after all. For a moment, he is in touch with his humanity. Unfortunately, he then draws the wrong lesson from his slip-up—he thinks he should have been harder—and beats himself up. This is classic perfectionist behavior.

If Gawain doesn’t learn these vital lessons, however, can Kyle? The first lesson, of course, is that he’s human. He must push himself to excel, of course—this is what it means to be a professional, whether doctor or knight—but at the same time he must remember that he has all the limitations that humans have. If Kyle learns this, he will avoid the hardening that threatens all health care professionals. Gawain may beat himself up for his mistakes but Kyle doesn’t have to.

In Gawain, Kyle also sees different ways that people respond to death, a useful thing for a doctor. I’ve written about how the three hunted animals in Part III represent three different responses: the deer are those who refuse to think about it, the boar thrashes around, and the fox takes evasive maneuvers. At different times, Gawain is each of these animals.

Note how all these lessons are available through a story, an insight which might be the most valuable lesson of all for Kyle. Doctors who listen to their patients’ stories—really listen—gain invaluable knowledge. One would not know, from viewing Gawain’s exterior, that he is a tormented man. He doesn’t even let himself know. But if he were to tell of his encounter with the Green Knight, a committed listener would learn much.

In Intro to Lit, Kyle learned how to “read between the lines.” He discovered that there is much more to stories, much more to people, and much more to himself than he initially realized. Interpreting stories is good training for interpreting human beings, and therefore a good skill for doctors to have.

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    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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