Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
Among the big medical news stories of the past week is an increasingly global tale of failing French breast implants. As many as 400,000 women in multiple countries are potential victims of defective implants, prone to leakage, and made using a grade of silicone never approved for cosmetic surgery by a French company shut down in 2010. The true magnitude of associated health risks remains speculative.
Any connection of this worrisome story to events in Bethlehem 2000 years ago seem at first limited to happenstance; this news happens to be breaking, and I happen to be writing about it, shortly before Christmas. But while undeniably goaded by such temporal serendipity, I do see a connection of deeper significance.
We all know the holiday is ostensibly a birthday celebration for Jesus, but that just scratches the surface. If true meaning can be found beneath all the layers of pagan and pop-culture veneer, it is about redemption. Jesus was sent to us to embody a perfection unattainable for us; to atone for sins we are incapable of avoiding; and ultimately to fall, and rise, on our behalf- and thereby absolve the worthy.
The story reverberates more deeply for those who believe than those who don’t, of course, but the case is not hard to make that it is evocative for us all, regardless of faith. We yearn to be more perfect than our modest aptitudes allow. We are, as we say, only human, and thus inescapably imperfect. Jesus was sent here to help us confront that limitation.
We cannot cross that threshold on our own, and the stakes of trying tend to be high.
Perhaps no one since Jesus has made that point as clearly, and compellingly, as Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his famous short story, “The Birthmark.” Hawthorne tells of a scientist married to a woman so beautiful, that by all accounts, her beauty is nearly perfect. Her nearly perfect beauty is marred only, and ever so slightly, by a birthmark on her cheek. The scientist develops an elixir to remove the birthmark, and lo and behold, the birthmark disappears—and her beauty is…flawless.
But alas, Hawthorne wrote this story for a religious audience of his day as a moral parable about the unattainable conceit of human perfection. So, in fact, the seemingly superficial birthmark was nothing of the sort, but rather the mark of the heroine’s inescapably imperfect humanity. The elixir did remove the birthmark, but it traced its remedial effects from the woman’s skin, to the very core of her—to her heart—and rendered her beauty perfect, even as it killed her. She could not be perfect and still be a living, breathing human being.
This tale is of surprisingly timely relevance. It is germane to all who aspire to the figures of air-brushed, half-starved super models. It seems germane to those who accept the risks of liposuction, rather than embrace the harder, but safer and more rewarding commitment to using feet and forks as well as possible. And it seems germane to hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy women, now worrying about the loss of that health for the sake of more perfectly contoured breasts.
Perfect is the enemy of good, because we can’t get to perfect. Jesus tells us so. Hawthorne wrote it out for us. If a French breast implant company begs to differ, who do you choose to believe?
As a new year looms, we might consider abandoning the quest for superficial perfection- and embrace the pursuit of humbler, but deeper good. The particular advantage of good over perfect is… we could actually get there from here.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com