One of the strangest side effects of my years working with hospice was the collapse of my sense of belonging. I had no idea beforehand, how much of my identity was tied up with the various beliefs I held and the different groups I identified with because of them. National, ethnic, familial, political, economic, spiritual, you name it, I had come to define most of who I am by the ideals I held.
But then, as I entered homes filled with beautiful, vulnerable, dying people…who it just so happened believed in a wide variety of things that were frequently different, even opposite, from my own…I made the unwelcome discovery that many of my ideals were actually fed by lurking, unconscious prejudices that lay, seeping and contaminated, just underneath.
I was naturally horrified.
One of my biggest prejudices was against the medical/industrial complex and especially the pharmaceutical branch. (Please understand, my admission of a prejudice is not to say there isn’t a problem. I’m not alone in my concerns about our over-prescription, over-use, and over-reliance on drugs. A lot of thoughtful people, both in and out of the medical field, are worried about it.)
But for complex reasons, including a couple of personal encounters with disrespectful (and in one case unethical) doctors, I went beyond simple concern into deep prejudice. I began to think badly of medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance people as a whole. I came to question not only their motives but their basic humanity.
I secretly began to suspect they were monsters.
But then one day I had this irresistible urge to work with the dying and as a result, actually entered into the medical/industrial complex as a participating member. I joined a hospice, took a class, and became a nursing assistant. I did my clinical hours in a nursing home. Visited patients in hospitals. Worked closely with nurses and doctors and even filled prescriptions at pharmacies, delivering them to the people I helped care for. And lo and behold! Somewhere along the line, in the gentle, surprising way that grace frequently delivers its gifts, I rediscovered the value, relief, and miracle that modern technological advances have to offer.
I discovered there aren’t really any monsters after all, just an odd amalgamation of deeply caring, deeply flawed human beings.
As a result of this journey, modern medical technology has taken on a slightly different cast for me. Not so much a cold, uncaring, manipulative, disrespectful power that takes over our bodies and ignores our humanity, but an offering of something extraordinary, a possibility of the truly miraculous.
I had a patient once. Maggie–dear, beautiful, polio stricken Maggie Full Of Grace–who wrote a little book about her sixty year journey with the disease and it’s after effects. I read it after she died and in it I found the answer to a question I’d always wondered but never found the courage to ask her. How did she feel to be one of the last to ever contract polio? The vaccine was introduced two years later and the disease, for all intents and purposes, was eradicated. Did she ever feel cheated? Did she ever think Why me? Why wasn’t it discovered two years sooner?
I found the answer in her book. First, she described the terror she and her husband initially experienced in those earliest days, not for her but for their three small children, the fear that they might also contract the virus. She’d been nursing her five-week old baby at onset so he was particularly exposed. That description was then followed by this passage:
“One of the greatest blessings I would later thank God for is the presence of the vaccine, the fact that our children and grandchildren will never get polio.”
I started to cry when I read it. It was as though she was still there whispering to me. Still trying to answer the secret question, the real question, I so desperately needed to ask her. She’d been powerless to stave off infection from the polio virus itself, but somehow she’d successfully fought off the bitterness and regret that so often follows in the wake of such trauma. How? In the face of decades of the resulting hardship and suffering, how in the world did she protect her heart from that kind of collapse?
And somehow there the answer was, miraculously written down for me in her book. Her love for her children and gratitude that they were spared served as her vaccine. The power of those two emotions filled her heart with a kind of immunity that no bitterness, however real, however justified, could overcome. It was something I’d always heard but somehow never really understood before, the simple difference between looking at a glass as half full rather than half empty. Both realities are always true. Both have an impact that must be absorbed and coped with. But the choice of which one to cleave to is always ours, which one we’ll ultimately allow to fill our vision and heart.
I’d never understood before, how often I fill my own with emptiness. No wonder I’ve struggled with so much sadness.
It was the people I met like Maggie Full Of Grace who started anchoring me back into an older place inside myself, turning me into a person far more tolerant and oblivious than I’d been before. Over time things like politics and religious differences, economic backgrounds and cultural beliefs, all the myriad and ever-multiplying array of opinions that seemed to matter so freaking much beforehand just didn’t anymore. Over time I became freer and happier and better and more loving…and increasingly confused by the change.
It was like climbing up to the peak of the very highest mountain in the middle of a vast wilderness where I could finally see forever and ever… but then the wind sucked the map out of my hands and blew it away. The views were spectacular in a way that knocked me to my knees, sure, but how the hell was I ever gonna find my way back out?
(Don’t delete this photo again dammit…it’s my picture!)
How was I supposed to navigate without the instinctive bearings my prejudices gave me? I’m still, five years later, struggling to figure that one out.
Maggie came forward in time sixty years to instruct me on the brutal, harsh reality of how it really was back then. Watching her struggle every single day within her twisted, paralyzed body, hearing her stories of those long, painful, uncertain months in the polio hospital, of how many husbands abandoned their wives, how many crippled children were left behind and forgotten, all these things brought that world to life for me. I finally got it, why the word, polio, used to strike such terror into the hearts of all who heard it. Why Jonas Salk was such a hero and how the vaccine really was a miracle of deliverance.
Life before penicillin, immunizations, knowledge of basic hygiene, and the vast array of other developments and discoveries we have today was often cruel. What we were forced to rely on instead back then was Adaptation with all its tools—the human qualities of creativity, determination, strength, patience, fortitude, and grace. And now, today, we sit at the junction of these two ages, emerging from a period of helpless vulnerability when we were forced to cultivate our deepest, inner humanity just to cope and survive, and entering into an age of blossoming outer powers where we no longer have to simply grit our teeth, accept, and endure.
We’ve discovered a will, an intelligence, and an imagination within ourselves that can generate miracles…and the breakthrough is heady. It’s created an insatiable hunger within us for more power, more knowledge, more salvation. We now dream wild and intoxicating dreams of freedom from all disease, all aging, all pain, all suffering.
Even, perhaps, from death.
But I’ve watched a strange and disturbing thing happening as our outer powers increase. It seems that our inner powers, the long-cultivated wisdom of our deepest humanity, seem to be diminishing as they lay, forgotten and misplaced in the hallways just outside of research labs and insurance offices and fear-filled waiting rooms. The ancient tools that served us for thousands of years—things like courage, sacrifice, endurance, surrender, the ability to recognize and be grateful for all that we still have—are threatening to atrophy with a current wave of under-use. And in their place things like fear, anger, blame, grasping, desperation, and bitterness frequently rise instead.
I have hope though. I don’t think the current trends will last. I suspect that we’re simply in the first flush of wild discovery and have yet to understand the limits, comprehend the costs, of pure, unbridled dreaming. After eons of helpless suffering the pendulum is swinging wildly to the other extreme , but pendulums always swing back. Someday we’ll remember that we can’t just eradicate things like suffering and death because to do so would also eradicate the great arc of wounding and joy that is life.
No. I think we’ll eventually settle down, find some equilibrium, and begin the practical task of roping in our miracles, tethering and training them, instead of letting them stampede through our lives, trampling the older, extraordinary knowledge we’ve already developed.
Here’s hoping for a divine marriage between the two someday soon. A day when our modern technology becomes firmly anchored in our ancient humanity, and when our collected wisdom is further deepened by the discoveries and miracles of today.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn