Thursday, July 19, 2012

What If the FBI Agent Fell off the Roof?

     What if the FBI agent fell off the roof and broke his neck?  What if his face had multiple lacerations and his breathing was shallow?  What if I were the only person, a doctor, at the scene? What if I rushed to his side and recognized him as the selfsame person who had led the raid on my clinic and gathered spurious evidence against me, hoping to shut down my business, destroy my life, and put me in prison?
     I have had patients with injuries like this.  When I worked as the only physician in a rural emergency room in Missouri, I had worse. And I will vouchsafe that "rushing to his side" is not entirely an automatic response, honed by years of similar experiences, but rather a response of the heart, a deep, conscious, human desire to help another lost, injured or suffering human being restore himself to human life.
     The word "human" is key here, because I am having to revamp my understanding of what it means to be human.  For most of my life I--like so many of us--assumed that other human beings were construed exactly as I am, at least when it comes to the operative feelings we have for one another, whether we stand to gain or not, especially in dire circumstances.  My heart leaps into action when another person is suffering.  I want to stop pain.  I want to comfort and aid those in distress, sometimes taking on their problems as though they were my own.  I identify with the suffering of others so much that my life as a doctor is itself a kind of suffering, all day long, as a means of entering into and retrieving the pain of others from the oblivion of loneliness, and thereby administering the saving potion.
        I identify even with the pain of those who are constructed in a completely different way, because I have realized over my years of practice and in my personal life that some people don't "feel" at all in the way I do.  Some people "feel" with their minds.  They think, "Ah yes, that's too bad..." but their bodies don't resonate, their hearts don't race, they are not moved, emotionally, toward the person in distress.  And then there are others who don't feel at all, but remain distant and objective, as though another person's suffering were a fact, like rain or humidity, not requiring a response.  For this last subset of people feelings are such a foreign language that they don't even recognize what it is they lack, never having been in that land, or communicated in that tongue.  When you confront them, saying, "You don't even care!" they look at you blankly and answer, "Yes, I do."  But you, who have a heart, know the difference.
     What if Qaddafi or Hitler were lying mangled on the pavement, having fallen from that roof?  What if one of them--the ultimate examples for us of the absence of fellow feeling--were mortally injured, bleeding out, moaning in pain?  Here would be someone who could not, if the roles were reversed, commiserate--someone who might even take perverse pleasure in a distressed person's pain.  Would I help him, in his suffering?  The answer is:  Yes.  
     I am a little shocked by this knowledge of myself.  I am not sure my response would be quite moral.  It means that at a subterranean level I believe in the redemption of the souls of others.  But redemption from what, toward what?  Do I want others to become just like me?  If so, isn't my motive in helping them self-serving, and not generous of heart?   Would it mean anything, finally, to the one who fell off the roof, that I acted from my deep doctor-heart and helped him--would he, finally, "feel" anything beyond the sheer animal-relief of survival?  I don't know.
     As a physician I have been called on, very often, to care for and love, in my medical way, people whose lives are lived very differently, whose choices seem inhuman.  There have been men who left their wives after a mastectomy, just before the horror of chemotherapy.  There have been mothers who inflicted cigarette burns, repeatedly, on their small children.  There have been grandfathers who sexually molested the three-year-old granddaughters left in their care.  There was a police officer who murdered his wife in front of their children.  There was a woman who attempted, methodically, to poison her husband after a stroke, when he was of no further use to her.  There have been sexual predators and stalkers, and people who seemed, incredibly, to take pleasure in the suffering of others and to inflict it in order to take such pleasure.  These have been some of my patients. 
     What would you do if you were called to save the life of one of these individuals?  What if one asked you to help him out of pain, so that he could go back to his incomprehensible life?  What would you do?  What should I do?
     Because of the way I am constructed, I cannot do anything but care for all people with compassion, sometimes expressing feelings they don't understand or appreciate, feelings they certainly cannot, in most cases, return.  This is what it means to be in the "healing profession."  Judgments about a person's way of life are not my domain.  I suppose such judgments belong to the domain of people like the FBI agent mentioned above, the one who has not, in fact, fallen from a roof and been horribly injured, but who is in the full flush of life, invested with a lot of power, deserved or not--power to attack and steal from others, including me, power to ruin my life and not feel a bit of sadness or doubt about it.
     And if this FBI agent did get hurt and landed at my doorstep I would not be able to stop myself from taking care of him, from feeling his terror and pain as the yawning mouth of death opens and reveals itself to him, for a time, as it always does when any one of us is in mortal danger.  I would be impelled, as an expression of my most fundamental nature, to treat him as though he were another incarnation of god, as I believe we all are, deserving of love and deep consideration, deserving of life-saving treatment, deserving of another chance to live his life, even if that should mean forcing me, unjustly, to go to prison, and taking away my license to do the very same thing for others. 

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