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The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a Life Hack
Doctors, I’m Begging You, Read a Book
One of the enduring questions in modern medicine is whether our leading minds are pig-ignorant or outright evil. We have so many classic works of literature illustrating the moral dangers of scientific hubris. Yet doctors keep walking up to flashing neon doorways marked “Hubris! Hubris! Hubris!” and entering without a moment’s pause. Is this real life, or a Bad Idea Jeans commercial? I can’t figure it out: have our nation’s smartest doctors never heard of these books, or do they read them only to get ideas about terrifying new doorways to enter?
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Do doctors today think, well, Dr Frankenstein messed up his suturing technique, I’ll do it better, or is Shelley as foreign to them as the book of Genesis? When the NHS sets up a national governing body called NICE, is it because British doctors today have never heard of the most popular British writer of the last century, or was it done in deliberate, sinister homage to CS Lewis’ demonic National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments?
Today’s example comes not from Lewis, but from Wilde. Have you heard of Ozempic yet? You almost certainly know somebody on it. It’s the hot new prescription drug that, via weekly injections, takes the weight off. Developed for diabetics, it is now being prescribed to everyone – including children, with, of course, the support of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The days of eating right and exercising are gone, now you don’t have to change a thing, your friends in Big Pharma will finally get you that beach bod.
In other words, Dorian Gray has become the face of modern medicine. For those who don’t remember Oscar Wilde’s novel (or the film adaptation), the handsome Gray can engage in all manner of debauchery and evil without getting so much as a wrinkle. While his outward appearance remains young and beautiful, his portrait, hidden away, depicts the true appearance of his body and soul – and is too monstrous to behold. I won’t hammer Wilde’s message too hard, this isn’t English 101, but the memorable takeaway is straightforward: don’t sacrifice your eternal soul for your superficial vanity, don’t corrupt what’s inside to perfect what’s outside. If Gray’s magical painting were melted down and turned into a pharmaceutical product, it would be Ozempic. And Ozempic is likely to become the best-selling drug in American history.
If you’re interested in the subject, don’t miss this debate moderated by Bari Weiss. On one side, a Harvard Medical School professor. On the other, an anti-Pharma activist. The sensible moderate? The brilliant, evidence-based Dr. Prasad. The whole debate is worth a listen (be warned, Weiss uses foul language at one point; the others, while in a heated debate, keep civil tongues). You can guess that my sympathies lie with the Pharma-hating skeptic, yet even the less-impassioned Dr. Prasad is thoroughly underwhelmed by the evidence. It’s the same old story we know so well: inadequate studies, no long-term safety data, completely unknown downstream effects, no thought whatsoever given to moral/social/spiritual implications, so of course heartily approved by the FDA and implemented by doctors everywhere. If you only have a few minutes, skip to the 59 minute mark, when they debate the American Academy of Pediatrics’ unsurprising pro-weekly-injections-for-life stance. My favorite insight comes from Ms. Weiss at the 1:04 mark: we are already drugging millions of children to sit still because we’ve deemed normal childhood a mental illness, and now because our kids are sitting still all day they’re getting fat… so rather than realizing the error of our ways and going back to square one, we stuff them full of another lifelong drug so they can stay thin without any exercise. Way to go, science!
As Calley Means points out in the debate, obesity itself is not the problem, not exactly. The problem is the unhealthy habits that lead to obesity. Gaining a few too many pounds can be a helpful signal that you need to change things up. Covering up that signal with a drug will not make you a healthy, thinner person – just an increasingly unhealthy thin person! If your blood remains nothing but liquefied Cheetos dust, it doesn’t matter what the scale says, you’re rotting from the inside. I was reminded of Means’ Wildean observation the other day, watching some acquaintances engage in friendly, decidedly non-strenuous athletic competition. You’ll understand I cannot go into detail, but one of the participants, apparently a fit athlete type, nearly collapsed from exhaustion while everyone else barely broke a sweat. I happen to know this person is already on Ozempic. And then it hit me: she was performing exactly like I would expect an obese person to perform at this activity. In other words, she looks thin, but her Dorian Gray portrait plays defense for the Cowboys. Get prepared to notice this Gray Effect in your own neighborhoods this summer. Now, it’s one thing for grown up, already silicone-enhanced acquaintances to pursue yet more paths of dangerous vanity – but are we ready to push this approach to life on our children?
Just some food for thought the next time you encounter Ozempic. And you don’t even have to delve into your library. If Oscar Wilde is too much to ask, can we at least settle for Groundhog Day? The scene in which Bill Murray, knowing there’s no tomorrow, keeps shoving dessert after dessert into his mouth, is supposed to illustrate that he still has a lot to learn, not that his journey to wisdom is complete! As my Sunday school teacher likes to say, you don’t do rituals, rituals do you. That is, what you do on the outside often leads to what you become on the inside. Murray might not put on any weight while pigging out on poundcake, but he’s becoming a glutton nonetheless. Don’t let some fancy Pharma cocktail turn you into a svelte glutton; the bill will come due, one way or another.
I still can’t tell whether my medical colleagues were so consumed with the study of human anatomy in textbooks that they forgot to turn to the kind of book that would teach them about the human soul, or whether they do read widely in order to steal their best ideas from literature’s great villains. On the off chance that ignorance is the answer, here goes nothing. Dear medical establishment, spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for Dorian Gray, and it won’t end well for you.
As a writer who understood human nature even better than Wilde did once put it, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
Thank you for reading, and have a blessed week!