it’s not brain surgery

Today, as I was dissertating, I began wondering what it is that I’m doing. Who will my work matter to, if anyone? I’m not doing brain surgery. I’m not finding a cure for cancer. I’m not even discovering a new mathematic formula that could resolve world debt.

A few hours later, I was on the phone with my brother discussing what I had written today. “I worked on my case narrative. But,” I said, “I realize that I’m not curing cancer so I’m starting to wonder why this is all important.”

Then he reminded me of something. This week is National Suicide Prevention Week in the U.S. And, he reminded me, people who send in postcards to PostSecret are often looking for someone to hear them — to understand their pain — so that they don’t commit suicide. And if I’m looking at those postcards (and I was looking at them today, all 251 of my data set), I see how many of them are about suicide. What does that say about how we communicate secrets and fears and hopes and love and anguish and pain and joy? And, he asked me, isn’t this what you do look at?

I study the human condition, I said. It’s a rhetorical perspective of it, but that’s what I do. And, he reminded me, we can do a lot of damage to our bodies with our minds, so even if you’re not curing cancer, you are giving us an insight into how and why we make the kinds of choices we do — and those are every bit as important as curing cancer.

While I won’t ever cure cancer, nor will I ever administer professional assistance to those who harbor suicidal thoughts, maybe my work is important. Even if it’s in some small way, it can be important. It can shed light on choices we make — even if it’s the language and imagery that is chosen to convey a message. Maybe. Just maybe, it can be important.


  1. ashley

    i think you said it yourself, dawn. you study the human condition. people who can do that with the level of empathy that you can (and do) – whatever work you choose to do will be important.

    i think the fact that you chose – and continue to choose – communication is valuable on multiple levels.

    the thing that comes to mind for me, today – and you know suicide prevention hits a button for me – is that you are an excellent communicator, personally and professionally – and i believe that’s something that goes both ways.

    people who are skilled on one side of the coin are one thing – people who are skilled on both sides of the coin – i.e., you listen, you process, you give back (which is more than two sides, now that i think about it)… that’s not a gift that all of us have.

    i think it’s good to question what we do sometimes. i think it’s essential that we question it in the presence of people who know us well enough to tell us the truth about it.

    your brother is a wise man. :) as you are a wise woman…

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