“At Random”: Using Ralph as guide to surgery

A dozen years ago, I asked a cardiac surgeon how he found the courage to crack open someone’s chest and work on a fragile heart.

Very simple, as he explained it. Before each operation, he’d find a quiet corner of the hospital ­— maybe even a broom closet — and read a few pages of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson steadied the doctor enough to hold another life in his hands.

The answer puzzled me. I had been forced to read Emerson in college and found him a colossal bore. On graduation day, I bought a copy of Emerson’s essays from the campus bookstore and planned to give him another try. That paperback volume, as big as a brick and sporting a cover the color of an eggplant, has sat on my shelf for decades, as lifeless as a doorstop.

About Emerson, you might already know. The 19th century New Englander began as a minister, then resigned because he couldn’t square his idea of God with the one he found in his church. He turned to writing and speaking full time, crafting essays that, among other things, encouraged Americans to develop their own ideas instead of simply importing them from the Old World. His thoughts on topics such as learning and self-reliance made him into one of America’s first motivational celebrities.

Emerson was great with the pithy pronouncement — we’ve all heard the one about foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds — but I always felt when I was reading him that he wasn’t so much making an argument as issuing a proclamation. What was lacking, I guess, was any sense of connection with a real person.

But not long ago, a magazine assignment to write about Emerson brought him back into my life. I learned that other people have also found his essays dry, although they’ve discovered a more personable presence in his private journals.

Last week, when someone in our family had elective surgery, I brought a selection of Emerson’s journals to the hospital, taking a cue from that long-ago heart surgeon who had found Emerson a comfort in medical settings.

Things went well for our loved one in surgery, and a speedy recovery is now in progress, but trips to the hospital are never fun. Time moves glacially in a hospital waiting room. The Emerson of the journals is a good companion when minutes go slowly, since he’s a chatterbox who talks endlessly from the page, happy to tackle any subject whether you are fully listening or not.

In July of 1841 — a July, one gathers, very much like our own — we find Emerson musing on manure, wondering how it can magically turn into strawberries, peaches or carrots when it dresses a garden.

Emerson’s sense of wonder at the world enlarged my sense of possibility, and possibility is a good thing to hold close when you’re in a waiting room while someone you love is under the knife.

So, let me suggest adding Emerson’s journals to your summer reading list. Maybe the good doctor was onto something when he turned to Emerson as a guide to the human heart.