I'M OFTEN AMAZED at the guys—always older guys, 60's or older—who come to my ER with chest pain at 2 a.m., or 3 a.m., clean-shaven. Many of them are having heart trouble. A few are having actual heart attacks. But they took the time to shave before coming in.
Many of them have a history of heart disease. They know their symptoms, they know they are having unstable angina, or even an early heart attack—and they still take the time to shave. Even though they were in pain. Even though taking even a little extra time might endanger them. They still took the time to shave, at 2 in the morning.
Because going to the ER is a social event.
Social stuff is so important to human beings. Even in the midst of disaster, even in a medical emergency. These guys would just never think of leaving the house without shaving. Even if they're having a heart attack.
When I was a fourth-year student in med school, during a Cardiology rotation we used to round on a sweet elderly lady in the Coronary Care Unit. This was at North Carolina Memorial Hospital, in Chapel Hill, NC. The team (the attending physician, some residents, a gaggle of students, and maybe a couple of nurses) would review the patient's chart, ask her how she was doing, examine her briefly. She was very pleasant, but had Alzheimer's. She knew her own name, but had forgotten that it wasn't still 1943 and thought that Roosevelt was president. She used to flirt with us. She'd smile coyly, simper a little, and say in a very pleased tone of voice, "All my doctors are very handsome." The doctors' rounding on her was a social event, and she was responding to male attention (most of us were male) the way she had her entire life. Even after the subtleties of cognition had vanished, after she lost even the memory to remember what decade she was living in, the social skills survived. She was still the flirtatious and charming Southern lady. "All my doctors are very handsome." Life is social event.
When life ceases to be a social event, that's a sign that big trouble is brewing. When a person ceases to care about their personal appearance, when the person who bathes every day stops doing so, the woman who is always perfectly turned out starts looking a little disheveled, something is really wrong. Maybe depression, maybe alcohol or drugs, but it means a major disruption in their sense of self and their sense of their place in the world and connection with other human beings.
Americans say they value the rugged individualist, the one who cares nothing for what other people think, but blazes his own way in the world, true to his own vision. But even that guy shaves. Or, if two days growth of beard is stylish at the moment, he doesn't shave. He showers. He dresses... as one would expect a rugged individualist to dress. Because others expect it. Because he needs to look good in their eyes.
Because life is a social event.