‘Teach Us to Sit Still’ by Tim Parks

This is a fun book.  Tim Parks is an over-anxious, over-achieving man in his early fifties living in Italy.  He suffers from a bladder problem.  The book begins with descriptions of his various disastrous encounters with Western medicine’s attempts to fix this problem.  He read in an second-rated medical journal that sufferers from prostatitis (what he thought he had at the time):

“Tend to be restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individuals who drag their miseries around from one doctor to the next in search of a cure they never find.  The urologist must be careful not to let himself be demoralized by these people and their intractable pathologies.”

He is advised to get a TURP operation (Trans-Urethral Resection of the Prostrate) which will open one of his urinal sphincters.  Having his insides explained to him as though it is merely a case of dodgy plumbing to be fixed with the latest technology leaves Parks feeling uneasy.  Perhaps the funniest chapter in the book is his worrying perusal through solutions and problems to prostrate-related issues posted in internet forums.

‘Anyone any ideas on how to lesson the irritation and long-term lubrication of the part of the catheter outside the penis?  We just learned this week what went wrong.  After the green-light surgery his prostrate swelled.  It got so large it cut off its own blood supply.  The loss of blood supply caused his prostrate to swell even more.  It got so big it pushed against his lower rectum, pinching it shut.  He couldn’t poop solids.’

‘… I did not have erection after 1996 except twice after the surgery.  The pills and the pump do not work… Then the doctor inserted a balloon to stretch my bladder and later they put in a stent to keep my urethra open only it got infected.’

‘Prostrate fullness, slight pain, extending into penus on occasion… had fistula in the past, have hernia… Can anyone help?’

‘Suddenly my semen got clumpy and discolored.  I also experienced pain in my testicles and back.  I’m 23….’

On a trip to India, Parks meets a Vedic medicine doctor who counsels him that he will never fix his physical problem until he ‘confronts the profound contradiction in your character.’   This prompts him to reflect on his happy-clappy Christian family, led by his conservative and highly-strung priest father, who also suffered from a bladder problem.   Finally, he goes to a meditation retreat hosted by the unlikely John Coleman, once a high-profile member of the CIA.  Parks has some profound insights.  He comes to think that he is always living in words and that, to be at peace, he must learn to stop living through his own narratives about himself.

The book is stylishly, snappily written and with pleasant interludes from Parks’ personal life and his own literary way of looking at things, drawing on musings about Coleridge and a painting of a water seller by Velazquez.  Apart from some dull interludes about Parks’ passion for canoeing, the pages turn by themselves.  It is indeed, as the cover suggests, a book to give to somebody who wouldn’t touch self-help or spirituality books with a barge pole but might do well to.

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