Monday, April 09, 2007

Judgment Day

“What would you do if you found a sealed, stamped, addressed envelope lying on the ground?” This is a standard question many shrinks have been taught to ask patients as part of a mental status exam. It’s purpose, supposedly, is to elicit some information about the patient’s “judgment”. Most people believe that the “correct” answer is “I’d put the letter in a mailbox.” Obviously, there are many permutations of “wrong” answer (e.g., “I’d call the fire department” or “I’d burn myself with a cigarette” or “I’d put it in the toilet at the 7-11 and run away fast” all show less-than-stellar judgment.) However, it has always seemed to me that mailing the letter is not, necessarily, the best choice. Suppose it is a “Dear John” breakup letter that the person thought better of mailing? Or any number of other letters that are better off never being mailed?

Last week, for the first time, I actually found the proverbial sealed, stamped, addressed envelope. It was stuck inside an old psychiatric textbook that I had acquired a few days earlier. It’s a business-reply envelope addressed to the benefits department of a large disability insurance company in Smallish City. The handwritten return address is for a man living in a small town up north. It’s not the same name as that of the doctor who owned the book, which is inscribed inside the front cover—I’m guessing, perhaps, it was one of his patients. Who knows what happened? He was eligible for disability and didn’t get it, because the doctor forgot to send in the form? Is he still waiting to hear back from the company?

There’s a 25-cent stamp stuck on the letter. Quick research on historical postal rates dates the letter to between 1988 and 1991. I considered the possibility that the letter was written recently, the sender had only a 25-cent stamp, and was just waiting to find another 14 cents more in postage to mail it. But the corner protruding beyond the pages of the book is heavy with dust and yellowed with age. It’s been sitting for a decade or two for sure.

Anyway, what to do with the letter? The insurance company is still in Smallish City—should I add an extra stamp and send it there? Should I try to track down the doctor who owned the book? I looked up the man on the return address—he’s no longer at that address, but someone by the same name is on a different street in the same small town. Both his first and last names are common, but luckily he included his middle initial, so I’m pretty sure it’s the same guy. I guess I could send it back to him? Or I could open it. Or shred it. Or flush it down the toilet at Green Acres and run away, fast.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mail it to him... let him decide what to do with it.

4/9/07, 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Doug said...

That's an oddly difficult problem.

Objectively, there's little chance that a piece of paperwork this old will still be of benefit to anyone. Chucking it in the trash would probably have less ill effect than many ordinary acts of heedlessness that we accept daily.

But there's something about a letter, waiting so long to be sent, now finding its way into your care, that is likely to nag at you if you ignore it.

I wonder if it nagged at that doctor, too. If he or she didn't want to send it for some reason, but didn't feel right finally throwing it away, and so, in the end, passed it on to you to deal with.

4/10/07, 9:26 AM  
Blogger Dr Dork said...

Place in a new envelope. Add an explanatory note. Pay the postage.

Mind you, I'm a nosy bastard.

4/10/07, 11:04 AM  
Blogger jcat said...

I'm with Dr Dork on this it first! Then, unless it is something really bad, send it on with a note from yourself.
If it was bad? Hmmm...whole new ethics question, but in the meantime curiousity has to win out!
(oh...and don't forget to tell us as well....)

4/10/07, 12:41 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

I think you should write a short story. (And/or read some Paul Auster.)

4/10/07, 1:38 PM  

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