Medicines in Literature Not All Doctors Prescribe

The modern world approaches many problems with the outlook of a therapeutic society. For every ailment, complaint, or difficulty, it prescribes medication, some drug to change the mind, calm the nerves, stifle the energy, overcome depression, or control the appetite. An overmedicated society that depends on a pharmaceutical industry to provide for its happiness, peace, and self-control on all occasions in all stressful situations inhibits the growth and development of a person’s powers to endure and overcome many of life’s tribulations by his own resources, natural powers, and moral virtues. Other types of medicine besides psychotropic drugs exist to help people cope with life—natural, God-given, free, simple cures that accomplish great good when taught and practiced.

Physician Leonard Sax in his recent book The Collapse of Parenting identifies many problems inflicted upon the young by a society that has forgotten the simple, natural cures and turned to overmedication for anxiety and attention deficit disorders. Because of screens in bedrooms, children suffer from sleep deprivation. Because of virtual reality and video games, children have no outside interests or hobbies. Because they do not play outside as much as children of earlier generations, obesity has been on the rise.

A medicine heals or improves a person’s physical or mental condition. It alleviates suffering, composes the mind, and restores the order of body or mind. However, not all medicines come in liquids or pills in bottles. Many belong to the category of Mother Nature’s pharmacopeia that prescribes natural cures that do not taste like bitter medicine or have harmful side effects— medicine that sometimes works slowly and invisibly and other times instantly or suddenly. Literature shows the potent powers of three of Mother Nature’s remedies for a multitude of ills: the magic of sleep, the lightheartedness of play, and the leisure of fishing.

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Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream depicts the restorative effects of sleep to resolve complex romantic situations that trouble the confused mind. The fairies in the play who revel at night in the forest administer the medicine that produces astonishing results that others dealing with the problem fail to accomplish. The cure consists of a love juice distilled from a flower that gently anoints the eyes of fools while they sleep. Lacking a clear mind and good judgment, they woo lovers who reject their courtship and feel no attraction to them. When these foolish lovers awaken, they see with the light of reason their true love but have no consciousness of any medication.

According to the folklore of the fairies, the power of this medicine achieves an immediate cure: a person who wakes up with the eyelids anointed by the love juice falls in love with the first person he sees—the right person to love as every Jack shall has his Jill. The healing effect of the medicine cures the mind of nonsense and restores common sense. The magic of sleep lies in the power of rearranging the mind and clearing it of foolish ideas that need to be dispelled. Sanity returns with a good night’s sleep as a person gains perspective and distinguishes between fantasy and reality and deals in the honest truth before instead of imagining about impossibilities.

Four quarreling lovers bicker about a marriage that neither a father, the Duke of Athens, nor the rule of law can negotiate to reconcile all differences. In love with Lysander, Hermia wishes to marry the husband of her choice, not the man selected by her father: Demetrius. Before his attachment to Hermia and the father’s favor, Demetrius had wooed Helena and given every impression of a courtship destined for marriage. Because the father (Egeus) insists that his daughter marry the man he approves, Hermia rebels and seeks flight through the forest at night to marry Lysander in another city. As they escape from Athens, Demetrius pursues them to prevent the match and gain the hand of Hermia while Helena pursues Demetrius to capture his attention and reclaim his love. Discord and strife reign as father and daughter quarrel and two pairs of lovers also live in conflict. When they fall asleep at night in the forest with all these unsettled problems looming, the fairies perform the magic of their mysterious healing.

The fairies simply rearrange matters or eliminate obstacles. They do not force Hermia to marry Lysander or Demetrius to wed Helena. They cure the foolish mind of Demetrius who denies the self-evident truth that Hermia does not love him. She has roundly rejected his offer. She is in love with Lysander. Sleep returns a person to his senses. This hidden healing effect of sleep—its power of clarifying thinking and removing ridiculous ideas—Shakespeare captures with the folklore of fairies. They appear at night, they are invisible, they move silently, and they leave no visible traces of their presence—except the dewdrops that appear on flowers’ petals and the renewed mind of the lovers who clearly see the truth that discharges their minds of far-fetched ideas that make no sense in the light of dawn.

In George Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, a distressed mother suffers from great anxiety because her injured husband cannot work and provide for the family. The food supply from the pantry continues to diminish with no sign of replenishment. Her troubled heart knows only fear as she dreads the days to come and the coming of hunger that will afflict her family, especially the children. Her young son Diamond, however, brings relief to his fretful mother with his playful imagination and lighthearted sense of fun. Diamond reassures his mother that the birds survive the winter, that Father explained to him that birds find food on rose bushes and that provide them berries as if specially stored in a barn for them.

Because Diamond has never lacked for food, he continues to calm his mother’s nerves: “But I haven’t got even a cupboard, and I’ve always had plenty to eat.” While the skeptical Mother remains unconvinced and replies that she has no knowledge of any door to such a cupboard, Diamond attempts one more time to instill hope: “I think there must be a big cupboard somewhere, out of which the little cupboards are filled, you know, mother.” This big cupboard of course is God’s Divine Providence that the mother’s fears have overlooked. A child brings comfort and cheer to a forlorn woman. His mirth provides a balm and a salve to a vexed spirit that needs uplifting. The innocence, purity, and mirth of a child transform the dismal atmosphere of Diamond’s home oppressed by the gloom of the future. The greatest cures to life’s sadness come in the forms of simple joys that revitalize the spirit.

In Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653), the healing effects of a leisurely day enjoying the sport of fishing in the company of mirthful companions does wonders for the emotional and spiritual well being of the fisherman who benefits from this recreation with a mental composure and peace of heart that renew his love of life and his appreciation of the world’s abundant sources of pleasure. As the fisherman explains the gains of leisure in pursuit of the favorite hobby of angling, fishing serves as “a rest to his mind, a clearer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness; and that it begat habits of peace and patience in those that profess’d it and practis’d it.”

Anglers are most aware of the many temptations of the world that rob a person of an ordered, harmonious life of serenity and that prevent “a recreation that invites them to contemplation and quietness.” The restless pursuit of riches, the compulsion of gambling, the ambition of the flatterers at court, and the wantonness of a large city ruled by gluttony and drunkenness are not conducive to a life of simplicity and temperance that angling cultivates: “ … rather be a civil, well govern’d, well grounded, temperate, poor Angler, than a drunken Lord.” While the lawyer “is swallowed up with business, and the Statesman is preventing or contriving plots,” and the avaricious always striving for more wealth, the fisherman restores his soul, relaxes his mind, and renews his energy, and he has “no turbulent, repining, vexatious thoughts that he deserves better; nor is vext when he sees others possess of more honor or more riches than his wise God has allotted for his share.” In short, the pure enjoyment of a favorite pastime protects a person from hyperactivity, excessive busyness, deadly seriousness, and an ambitious, restless life of insatiable desires that do harm to a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Walton’s book illuminates the healing powers of silence, leisure, peace, recreation, and contemplation that extreme busyness never allows. “No man can live without pleasure,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas. Man does not live to work, earn a fortune, live an affluent life of luxury, bask in worldly comforts, and accumulate wealth for retirement. On the contrary, he works to live, he earns a livelihood to enjoy the simple and abundant pleasures that rejoice the heart, and he lives in order to be at peace with himself, his neighbor, his environment, and with God—a Benedictine ideal that St. Benedict’s Rule of simplicity, moderation, and balance also cultivate as the art of living.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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