St. Elsewhere - Ties that Bind

Updated: Jul 9

In season two, episode one of the TV series St. Elsewhere, a show from the 1980s, the topic of meaning arises a couple of different times.

The topic first arises when Dr. Mark Craig (played by William Daniels), the chief of surgery, requests to do a heart transplant for an ailing patient. Either the operation is done, or the patient dies. However, the problem is that the hospital is undergoing budget cuts, and a heart transplant is quite expensive. So Dr. Craig threatens to resign if he doesn't get his way. He confides with a nurse the following:

Dr. Mark Craig: Yeah, well then maybe it’s time I go someplace else. 

Nurse Helen Rosenthal: What’s the matter, Mark?

Dr. Mark Craig: You know, just because a man reaches 50, doesn’t mean he should stop reaching. I made a vow to my father, to dedicate my life to excellence. 

Nurse Helen Rosenthal: Those kinds of vows are hard to keep. 

Dr. Mark Craig: Not for me. I mean, I’m talking about the quality of one’s work. I mean, that’s what makes life meaningful. 

Nurse Helen Rosenthal: Like Eve Leighton’s. (Leighton is the patient needing the transplant)

Dr. Mark Craig: Exactly. 

We see here that Dr. Craig derives some meaning in life not only from work but also through the quality of work. Although work is often discussed in relation to meaning, the quality of work is often not a component of those discussions. Though in some sense, it may be implied. Who gains a sense of value from flipping burgers poorly or only half frying fries?

Later in the episode we also see Dr. Victor Ehrlich (played by Ed Begley Jr.) having an existential crisis of sorts after a bungled date: I’m not a scum bucket, all I want outta life is a great career and the perfect relationship, is it really too much to ask? So we see young Dr. Ehrlich searching for answers as he struggles with the concept of love, as opposed to his mentor, Dr. Craig, who is well-established, older, and someone who recently cheated on his wife.

Finally, we have Dr. Cathy Martin (played by Barbara Whinnery) advocating for cryogenic freezing for all people (not just the wealthy), and simultaneously breaking up with Dr. Wayne Fiscus (played by Howie Mandel), after a one-day affair: I’ve come to realize that sex isn’t everything. Like Dr. Schwitzer, I have a purpose in life. Dr. Martin explains that she believes monogamy is monotonous, and everything derives from the trinity. Dr. Martin had seduced Dr. Fiscus into cheating on his girlfriend the day before. It is unclear who Dr. Martin is referring to when she speaks of Dr. Schwitzer, but it may be the Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer.

An excerpt from Wikipedia on Albert Schweitzer has the following:

In the Preface to Civilization and Ethics (1923) he argued that Western philosophy from Descartes to Kant had set out to explain the objective world expecting that humanity would be found to have a special meaning within it. But no such meaning was found, and the rational, life-affirming optimism of the Age of Enlightenment began to evaporate. A rift opened between this world-view, as material knowledge, and the life-view, understood as Will, expressed in the pessimist philosophies from Schopenhauer onward. Scientific materialism (advanced by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin) portrayed an objective world process devoid of ethics, entirely an expression of the will-to-live. So we see that like Dr. Martin, although she is invoking Schweitzer's philosophy that meaning must be founded around concepts of life, she inverts, or perhaps rather extends that philosophy towards extending life as long as possible, through the use of cryogenics.

If you saw the episode, what did you think? What did we miss? Have you read any of Albert Schwitzer's work? Comment below and let us know.

#existentialcrisis #love #work