Several years ago, I heard John Patrick speak at a conference, and he talked about the 4 levels of happiness. The first and lowest level is animal happiness, that is, our hungers, thirst, physical drives. The next level is discipline happiness, or the happiness that comes from applying yourself and acheiving that goal, such as in athletics or academics. The third level is that of needing to be needed, which can result in altruism. The highest level is that which comes from knowing and loving God (and, I would say, being known by and being loved by God). It's a very Neoplatonic idea, in the sense that we strive to aim for the higher levels, while de-prioritizing but still enjoying the lower levels.
At first blush, I didn't see much more than an interesting thought exercise in this, but later my friend James (of the Lyntelnosters) gave me pause to think how the work of medicine fits into this. I think two things can be gleaned:
1. Medicine is fundamental: This is the gravity of what we do. When physical and mental health deteriorate, the ability to pursue any of the happiness mentioned above is seriously challenged. This is the reason people will drain all their resources to pursue a cure; because what good are all these resources if I'm not alive or functional to pursue any other happiness?
2. Medicine is foundational: To me, this is the other side of the coin. What we do gives people the lowest level of happiness mentioned above, but that's it. Whether anything higher is achieved is up to them. Yes, physicians can help people to pursue higher happiness, but at that point, most people would say they have gone beyong the limits of medicine and into some other service more common to friendships than doctor-patient relationships.
So, in this light, medicine becomes humility and honor. It reminds me of a scene from Lewis' Narnia: "'You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,' said Aslan. 'And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth.'" Those of you who didn't think this was going to come around to CS Lewis ought to have known better.