Healthcare and the Human Spirit: Walt Whitman on the Most Important Priority in Healing the Body and the Soul
By Maria Popova
In the early 1860s, six years after he self-published Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) began volunteering as a nurse in the Civil War. Bravery and tragedy were odd bedfellows among the wounded and dying soldiers whom he visited, and bearing witness to their courageous suffering moved him deeply. These impressions permeated his later poetry and informed his prescient ideas about democracy.
Whitman recounted his wartime experience in a diaristic piece titled “Hospital Visits,” published in The New York Times in December of 1864 and later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library).
“This tremendous war goes on,” Whitman writes. “Every family has directly or indirectly some representative among this vast army of the wounded and sick.” Overcome with irrepressible compassion for these men (and, lest we forget, the lot of unheralded women), he set out to alleviate their suffering by lifting their spirits — an intuitive application of what modern scientists know about how our minds affect our bodies.
Whitman recounts his daily rituals of care:
Devoted the main part of the day, from 11 to 3.30 o’clock, to Armory-square hospital; went pretty thoroughly through wards F, G, H, and I — some fifty cases in each ward. In Ward H supplied the men throughout with writing paper and a stamped envelope each, also some cheerful reading matter.
Whitman brought the soldiers all kinds of gifts to lift their spirits — from apples, oranges, figs, gingersnaps, and “first-rate preserved berries” to pocket change and small bills. “The poor wounded men often came up ‘dead broke,'” he explains, “and it helps their spirits to have even the small sum I give them.” His generosity extended beyond the material and into the metaphysical — he lent them his poetic talent and helped them write letters home, even love letters. (How electrifying to imagine a love letter to a young wife ghost-written by none other than Walt Whitman and to wonder how many such miraculous treasures might exist.)
But the greatest gift with which Whitman graced the soldiers was his generous, loving spirit. He describes his daily hospital routine and the larger ethos behind it:
My custom is to go through a ward, or a collection of wards, endeavoring to give some trifle to each, without missing any. Even a sweet biscuit, a sheet of paper, or a passing word of friendliness, or but a look or nod, if no more. In this way I go through large numbers without delaying, yet do not hurry. I find out the general mood of the ward at the time; sometimes see that there is a heavy weight of listlessness prevailing, and the whole ward wants cheering up. I perhaps read to the men, to break the spell…
He cautions against letting such charity bleed into condescension. (Then again, as Seamus Heaney reminded us, “the Latin root of condescension means we all sink” — and what more worthy an object of compassion than these wounded soldiers, literally sunk to the ground on the battlefields?) Whitman urges for the preservation of human dignity even amid these most dispiriting of circumstances:
He who goes among the soldiers with gifts, etc., must beware how he proceeds. It is much more of an art than one would imagine. They are not charity-patients, but American young men, of pride and independence. The spirit in which you treat them, and bestow your donations, is just as important as the gifts themselves; sometimes more so.
In a sentiment that jars with its devastating timeliness today, when the mainstream healthcare system has reduced patients to data points each allotted a set number of minutes to be logged on an iPad by their productivity-strained physician, Whitman adds:
Few realize that it is not the mere giving of gifts that does good; it is the proper adaption. Nothing is of any avail among the soldiers except conscientious personal investigation of cases, each for itself; with sharp, critical faculties, but in the fullest spirit of human sympathy and boundless love. The men feel such love more than anything else. I have met very few persons who realize the importance of humoring the yearnings for love and friendship of these American young men, prostrated by sickness and wounds.
To many of the wounded and sick, especially the youngsters, there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world… Many will think this merely sentimentalism, but I know it is the most solid of facts. I believe that even the moving around among the men, or through the ward, of a hearty, healthy, clean, strong, generous-souled person, man or woman, full of humanity and love, sending out invisible, constant currents thereof, does immense good to the sick and wounded.
Complement Whitman: Poetry and Prose with the beloved poet on why a robust society is a reading society and this wonderful illustrated homage to his most beloved work, then revisit the science of how our psychological and physiological states affect one another.
Published April 19, 2016