The Brick – a fable for our times

I wrote this parable in 2009 as a contribution to an online debate and then forgot about it for years. I recently came across it again, however, and thought it still deserved readers, so here it is. Feel free to share it.

The Brick

“G’day Tom,” said Jamie, “How’s things?”

“Not too bad, mate.”

“You’re limping, though. What happened?”

“Oh, I dropped a brick on my big toe when I was clearing up a couple of days ago. I wasn’t wearing shoes so it hurt like hell. Mary made me go to the doctor. He said I should have antibiotics to stop any infection and ought to go and get it x-rayed to make sure no bones were broken. I asked if he was sure that was necessary, though, and he said no, no-one could ever be absolutely sure of the best thing to do, so I said that I’d take my chances on it healing up okay.”

“Well, Tom, it’s usually best to take expert advice and doctors are usually right, but it’s your foot…”

*

“Hey, Jamie,” called Tom a week later, “Can you hold the door for me?”

“Sure, Tom,” said Jamie, a bit puzzled but getting up from the couch. “Crutches!” he exclaimed. “What’s going on?”

“Well, you remember I dropped a brick on my toe? It got infected and swelled up, and the nail started turning black. I went to the doctor again. He reckons I’ll probably lose the nail now, and he bandaged it up and organised the crutches because I can’t put any weight on it.”

“So what happens now?”

“Well, he still reckons I should have an x-ray and antibiotics but he still admits he’s not absolutely sure that’s the best thing to do so I’m going for another opinion next Tuesday.”

“Jeez, Tom, I reckon you need to wake up to yourself. This is something that would have been easy to fix when it happened and now look at you. Still, it’s your foot…”

*

“G’day, Tom,” said Jamie, standing uncertainly in the doorway of the ward, “How’s things?”

“Hi, Jamie, thanks for coming in to see me.” Tom’s voice was weak. “Did Mary tell you I was here?”

“Yes, she’s seems pretty concerned about you, you dill. Drop a brick on your toe and do nothing about it for so long you end up in hospital… how silly can you get?”

“Yeah, all right, I did make the wrong call. But the doctors don’t know everything – they admit it – and I reckon anyone who’s going to make life-and-death decisions about my body needs to be really sure of what they are doing.”

“Now the doctor here wants to cut my leg off. He reckons the gangrene has gone so far that the only way to save my life is to amputate. But I asked him if he was certain and he said no, there was a chance that the new lot of antibiotics would kick in fast enough, so I said we should wait and see.”

“Like I said before, it’s your foot … but at least you’re taking antibiotics now?”

“Yes, the second doctor I saw had no doubt about that, so I did. But by that time my nail had fallen off and the whole foot was so swollen I couldn’t even get a sock on it. I’m beginning to think I should have taken my own doctor’s advice in the first place, though he did say he didn’t know everything. Still, maybe it will still turn out all right.”

*

“Hello, I’m Jamie. You’re Tom’s cousin Peter, aren’t you? The climate scientist?”

“Yes, that’s right, Jamie. I know you knew Tom pretty well for, what, ten years? I’m sorry we have to meet on such a sad occasion, but his friends didn’t all meet his family. Actually, I sometimes thought he deliberately kept me away from some people to avoid arguments.”

They stepped off the path to let the hearse past.

“Yeah, well, I guess I would have been one of those people,” said Jamie. “With all due respect, I really can’t see how you guys can be so sure that we have a problem when there’s so much you just don’t know about the climate.”

“Well, Jamie, we don’t know everything – anyone that says they have the whole truth is a religious nut, not a scientist – but we are absolutely sure of enough of the science to be sure we’ve got to do something fast.”

Peter paused to nod a greeting to an older couple moving past them towards the cemetery gate, and then continued. “We know for sure that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that temperatures must go up when there’s more of it in the air. We know that people have been pumping an enormous amount of it into the air for the last hundred years, and especially the last fifty. We can already see changes in all sorts of places – droughts and floods, Arctic ice vanishing, species going extinct. And we know that we are incredibly vulnerable to sea level rise – if it goes up one metre, more than 100 million people will have to move or die. As I say, we know enough.”

Jamie was about to object – what about this? what about that? – but hesitated as he remembered Tom. Sometimes we have to make crucial choices without all the information.

“When you put it like that,” he said, “I guess I’ve got to accept it.”

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