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Joining Heart and Head: A Cure for the House, MD Blues

It is a common view that the quest for truth breeds misery-as echoed lately in viewer responses to House, MD.

Raking in four Emmy nominations, including Best Dramatic Series, House has emerged as the most popular show on primetime TV. Its title character, Dr. Gregory House, is a brilliant, cynically sarcastic doctor described by many as an “exemplar of rationality” (New York Times). He is a genius of observation and logical deduction, investigating probable causes and hunting for clues in improbable places. He is also notoriously miserable, suffering from a painkiller addiction and a lackluster personal life. “Humanity is overrated,” he grumbles, before proceeding to save countless humans’ lives where other doctors have failed.

Commentators are struck by House’s virtues even as they note his vices. A reviewer for ScreenSelect raves that “Dr. Gregory House is the Doctor we all wish we had access to when we are ill. He has…the consummate genius to back up his inflated ego with cutting edge diagnosis that leaves you stunned at his brilliance.” Yet he is also “cranky and unlovable,” an IMDB reviewer writes, and, in the words of a BlogCritics.org reviewer, “keeps everyone at cane’s distance and flounders badly when his emotions are involved.” One Amazon critic comments that House “doesn’t really ‘do’ emotion.” House himself says in one episode, responding to someone’s complaint that he never meets his patients, “It’s easy if you don’t give a crap about them. If emotions made you act rationally, then they wouldn’t be called emotions, would they?”

House is distinguished by his commitment to the truth at all costs, yet he also tries to distance himself from emotion at all costs. That our culture would produce such a protagonist is unsurprising. “Ignorance is bliss,” we often hear; better to tell a polite “white lie” than an offensive truth; choosing the red pill over the blue pill means inevitable martyrdom; those who listen only to their heads and not their hearts wind up miserable loners. Hence the popular view that all “geniuses” are “tortured;” House being a preeminent example. If such are the consequences of unyielding rationality, then no wonder House is allergic to emotion. On the popular view, no good emotion can come of his reason-centered ethos.

But are emotions, in fact, at odds with rational truth-pursuit?

Granted, learning the truth can sometimes cause real pain. A husband who suspects that his beloved wife is cheating on him may dread further investigation. He knows that, should he discover that she is cheating, he will feel miserable and betrayed. However, consider the possible consequences of discovering the painful truth. On one hand, he can confront her, forcing an open discussion in place of the silent chasm that had been growing between them; if he has done something to alienate her, he can now learn it and work to rectify his errors.

On the other hand, suppose that in fact she turns out to be dishonorable and unworthy of his love. In light of his new knowledge, his love-the emotion that now causes him such searing pain-will gradually dissolve of its own accord. Supposing he stays rational and refuses to deceive himself, he will come to grips with the fact that her love is not the value he believed it was. Eventually, armed with that truth, he will be free to fall in love with someone new, someone who wins his affection on her genuine merits.

Contrary to Pascal, our hearts do not “have reasons that reason knows not.” Feelings are not impervious to the truth; on the contrary, they are responses to what we believe is true (given our prior knowledge and reasoning, or lack thereof). If we change our minds, our hearts naturally (though not always immediately) follow.

Take another case. Like the worried husband, a person who suspects he might have a debilitating disease, like cancer, may be reluctant to take the rational route and get tested. He knows that if the test should come out positive, he may be doomed to years of painful treatment-or worse, learn that his years are numbered. Indeed, that kind of discovery is bound to bring severe distress.

But consider the long-term emotional consequences of getting tested, as against the consequences of just staying home. The man who chooses the former may indeed be devastated by news that he has a malignant tumor. But now, he faces specific options as to how he will deal with his cancer-and has crucial knowledge enabling him to plan a course of action. In light of the information his doctor gives him about chemotherapy and its effects, about the time course of cancer and the nature of its progressive symptoms, this patient can now weigh his priorities and decide what actions will be most conducive to his life-and his happiness. If he can find a brilliant doctor like Dr. House to investigate his case, he may even tackle his cancer and emerge unscathed (and how his emotions will be dancing that day!).

Even if the worst is true-if the test reveals that his cancer has metastasized, leaving the patient with only months to live-he is better off knowing the truth. That knowledge equips him to decide how to invest those final months. He may be far more emotionally at ease if he calls his best friend, or meets with his kids, in the last days of his life, than if he never speaks to them again-thinking, until it’s too late, that he has years to spare.

The man who chooses not to get tested, of course, does not reverse the course of his cancer; rather than get it treated or contained, if possible, he lets it fester and metastasize. Though he may feel warm and fuzzy for a while in his ignorance, the mounting agony of a cancer left untreated will soon trap him in an emotional and physical hell. Lacking knowledge of his problem, he will be powerless to solve it.

One would think such a man does not want to live-but he must, else he would not so dread the results of a cancer test. The only explanation is that he thinks his pleasant emotions can somehow cancel out the truth. Else he would realize that, regardless of his present feelings, an undetected cancer will eventually kill him. But such an idea is absurd; merely feeling fit and healthy does not make it true. It neither erases the consequences of ill health, nor offers protection from the immense pain one feels as those consequences come to pass. Both the patient who avoids learning that he has cancer, and the husband who avoids learning that his wife cheats, are doomed to learn that wishing does not make it so. The mounting distrust and broken communication that will plague the marriage, as the wife invents new lies to conceal her adultery, may in time inflict nearly as much pain as a metastasized cancer.

Emotions proceed from one’s ideas about the value (or disvalue) of a thing-whether a cancer patient’s idea that a test is more dangerous than his ignorance, or a husband’s idea that his wife is loving and virtuous. It is only by forming one’s ideas rationally, in accordance with the truth, that one can achieve any kind of value (whether building a successful relationship or restoring oneself to health). If Dr. House, or any man, realizes that his emotions are not inexplicable, incurable pests that sabotage his reason, but rather the fruits of his rational thinking, he would find no further reason for his misery. One can learn the truth about what one can and can’t achieve, and what is and isn’t worth achieving-and in time, one’s emotions follow. In the long run, the truth does not hurt; it heals. Especially with geniuses like Dr. House on call to treat you. When you select your values rationally, in light of what is, in truth, possible and beneficial to your life, emotional fulfillment is your natural prize.

Joy and happiness are the ends to which an unyielding commitment to reason is the means. If Dr. House were rational about his emotions, he would embrace personal values and meaningful relationships rather than shun them. And to the fans who admire his rationality but would scarcely emulate it, lest they contract his misery alongside it, I say: Fear not. It is only in dark unreason, not in the light of rational inquiry, that wretched misery festers.

Gena Gorlin is a junior enrolled at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory.

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