Wednesday afternoon found me ringing up the local doctors’ surgery asking for an appointment. They could fit me in Saturday morning, or if it was an emergency, I could phone at 8am the next day. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ the receptionist asked.
‘It’s only a throat virus,’ I replied, ‘and I wouldn’t normally bother you. But I’ve been spitting a bit of blood.’
‘Not to be alarmist or anything, but you should see a doctor this afternoon,’ she said. ‘Come down at the end of surgery and we’ll fit you in.’
This was gratifying and distressing in equal measure. I couldn’t help but think of all those years with chronic fatigue when I felt absolutely dreadful and no one was much bothered. If only I’d known that all you needed to do to get medical attention was bleed! I duly saw the doctor and I’m not consumptive yet, it’s just a virus. I couldn’t help but reflect, though, on how the experience of chronic fatigue has warped my perception of illness. Anything that happens to me bodily has the effect of alarming me – instantly I’m scared that here we go again, here comes another decade of awful illness. So because of that, when my throat started bleeding on Monday, I spent the next 48 hours telling myself it was nothing important at all. Sure, I felt poorly, but nowhere near as bad as I did in the bad years. Now that I’ve seen the doctor and he’s reassured me, I sometimes feel even more worried: what if he’s wrong? What if he missed something? I wonder if I’ll ever get it all straight in my head again.
I’ve been more attentive than usual to my thought processes thanks to this fantastic book I’ve been reading, Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz. In it, she talks about the way the mind works through inductive reasoning. We make the maximum interpretation on the minimum of evidence, and generally this works pretty well (it’s certainly quick). It’s the essential cleverness of our brains that allows us to make the obvious assumptions, based on experience, reason and common sense. But it’s easy also to see how the system breaks down when our thought patterns are contaminated by emotion, anxiety in particular. Anxiety loves nothing more than to make huge interpretations on the merest hint of evidence, misreading frantically and blowing brief impressions out of all proportion. And because we are activating the same sort of mechanisms we always do, the result feels like a convincing conclusion.
The real problem with being wrong in this way (or indeed in any other way) is how stubbornly we cling to wrong answers. When others challenge what we think we know, we dismiss them in one of three ways – they’re ignorant, and don’t have access to our information; they’re stupid, and haven’t interpreted the information correctly, and finally, the most dangerous one, they’re evil, and are wilfully refusing what’s obvious for their own nefarious ends. Schultz says that just as we say ‘I’m sorry’ when we stand on someone’s foot, we need an easy formulation for when we end up in a hopeless cul-de-sac of our own false assumptions. It would rescue us from our own ridiculousness, she says, as well as make us aware how incredibly common it is, being wrong, how often in every day we mentally stomp on our own feet or someone else’s. And finally, it might make us aware of the limits of our knowledge, which we are all too apt to forget. (She says this most entertainingly, too, never have I laughed more at a non-fiction book.)
All this, and more, has been in my mind as I’m planning to write the next essay for my writing course on chronic fatigue syndrome, on the way it screws with the stories we have for illness and the way those stories hover around false assumptions and the limits of our knowledge. Talking of my writing course, we are at the start of the fourth week and there is a notable absence of bonding going on between the twelve members. In the absence of any knowledge at all, I wonder whether the others are all having a lovely time emailing privately back and forth. But the virtual scout hut where we are supposed to congregate has an abandoned feel. For some reason the practice has arisen that, rather than follow a discussion thread, members post their thoughts in separate threads, some in attached files. There’s a way to kill interchange stone dead.
We’re being forced into some sort of interaction, however, because we have to peer review our first essays. We’ve been put in groups of four for this, and although I’ve written my reviews, the others are lagging behind. We can read everybody’s assessments, though, and by the end of yesterday I realised that there were only three essays that hadn’t been read – mine, the oversharing suicidal guy’s and the retired lady who used to be a life model writing about her trip to Zanzibar. Ever feel like you’re in a club you’re not sure you want to be part of? By this morning, it was only mine whose tally remained a big zero. I’m in no hurry now; having read most of the other essays I am certainly conscious of being three thousand miles away from America, stylistically. One participant suggested that a writer stop using $100 dollar words when $1 dollar words could be found in their place. I passed this on to Mr Litlove who said, ‘You’ll have overspent, then.’ What can I do? I even speak this way, in full sentences with sub clauses and polysyllabic words. No prizes for guessing what inductive assumptions my course mates will make, though. ‘Once you’re over 40, you can’t care what other people think of you,’ suggested Mr Litlove, which is perhaps not exactly in the spirit of a course, but ah well, onwards, ever onwards….!