Three Cheers for Maternalism

Sarah Conly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, is the author of “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.” She wrote a fascinating op ed for the New York Times this past weekend:

Three Cheers for the Nanny State.

After delineating the ways in which we as individuals repeatedly trip ourselves up (cognitive bias, optimism bias, present bias, status quo bias), she reminds us that individuals are not completely rational; that there is no dignity in clinging to the illusion that we are. That the proper reaction to this fact is to help one another, not blame one another.

Public policy aside (though for what it’s worth I’m all for the ban on huge sodas), the resounding research conclusion that we are not always our own best decision-makers is striking, don’t you think?

We sometimes need somebody to tell us what to do. What to avoid. We need help. Often.

There’s this thing about being a corporate wife that I have neglected to mention but which is probably obvious: I have time. Lots of time. To think. About myself, about others who care about me. About decisions, about problems. So that I can figure out what to do. And what to avoid.

Here in my chair, with the kids playing in the next room (it’s spring break here) I’m thinking right now about the amount of time I’ve spent in the past year talking with other wives, processing events, mulling over dilemmas, offering solicited advice.

It’s a tremendous amount of time. Time well spent, but a lot of time, nonetheless. Who has that kind of time? Fewer and fewer people, apparently. I’m still one of those few. Maybe I need to make the most of it.

For now, though, I’ll make pancakes.

advice, unsolicited

Have you seen this? Six Ways to Cope with Cancer. My sister noted it a few weeks ago; it’s excellent. Everything Ms. Jaouad writes on her experiences–excellent.

There’s a lot to learn about managing a cancer diagnosis. I try to keep up, as cancer has had a presence in my family’s lives ever since my father-in-law was diagnosed with it in 2004. Since then, cancer has gained a continued intimacy.

A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago. She has endured chemotherapy, radiation, a mastectomy, and will soon seek treatment for neuropathy (which resulted from the intense chemotherapy). She has been, in my eyes, informed, decisive, resolute, and brave–brave, as in knowing all too well that everything is terrifying, but carrying on, because there’s really no other choice. She is young, she is a mother. She reminds me of my sister.

My friend tells stories of strangers who have offered advice such as, “Have you tried positive thinking?” As if my friend were Eeyore. My sister related something similar to me–about an acquaintance who extolled the virtues of a macrobiotic diet versus the medical course my sister had already chosen. As if my sister ate junk. My friend also described a member of her family who actually argues against many of my friend’s decisions about her diagnosis and treatment, as if it’s up for discussion. As if my friend is wrong.

It seems that often such advice (or argument) comes from a person who has no shared experience, from a person who has enjoyed the luxury of health and has never needed a serious medical intervention. I know these people mean well, but do they honestly think that the person they’re talking to–the person who has the cancer–hasn’t considered everything under the sun, or hasn’t promised God that they’d do anything if they could just be healthy and well without needing drastic, dramatic life-saving treatment? Do they think the person they’re talking to–the person who has the cancer–is unaware?

When glib advice is given or a useless, thoughtless argument is made–what is it that this person is trying to achieve? To be helpful? To be correct? To win? Exactly who is this about?

Here’s some advice for anybody who has been blessed with a cancer-free life. For anybody who is lucky enough to have avoided any serious health scare, and meets somebody or is close to somebody in the midst of one. We all want to be helpful. We all want to have an impact. But what matters most is your presence. Not the sound of your own voice.

Shut up and listen.