(Picture of pocket lint courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally written for Daily Episcopalian on December --, 2011)
When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away, saying, as it were, “Why weren’t you this for me? Why didn’t life do that for me?”, we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given in time by God.
When we set out to seek our private happiness, we often create an idol that is sure to topple. Any attempts to protect any full and private happiness in the midst of so much public suffering have to be based on illusion about the nature of the world in which we live. We can only do that if we block ourselves from a certain degree of reality and refuse solidarity with “the other side” of everything, even the other side of ourselves.
--From "Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr," pages 5, 7
One of the odd roles of the inner office space of the hospital pathologist is best described as "pastoral space for physicians under the guise of coming to get biopsy results." I can't remember the number of times the conversation on the other side of my two-headed microscope started out being about "the biopsy," but by the time the other physician leaves, I've heard way more than what I needed to make the diagnosis about the patient. I've heard a shaggy dog story about the patient's family, the chain of events that brought the patient to this place, and mostly, the physician's own frustrations about it all--particularly when the patient is what we call "The non-compliant patient."
I particularly find myself functioning in this pastoral role with the young interns and residents and clinical medical students--young and eager and full of knowledge, oh, so very sure what the patient needs to do, and incredibly exasperated that the patient is not doing it, or was in such denial that things are a total mess at the time the patient is admitted. Yet it's the rare patient who is even 50% consistent with the instructions the physician gives. My mind often wanders back to bits and pieces of the hundreds of prospective medical student admission interviews I've conducted over the years. I've yet to hear a candidate for admission say, when asked to describe a day in what they think life will be like as a doctor, "I'll go to the office some days and have to deal with patients who don't listen, patients who are late for their appointments, patients who are upset about the bill, and patients who display drug-seeking behavior." Without fail, they always describe a shiny, happy practice, with a waiting room filled with people, who, as my late grandmother used to say, "have sunshine streaming out their butt."
It's interesting that, even though the doctor-patient relationship is really a covenant, we use that term "compliant"--as if the patient's responsibility is the sum total of the relationship.
Although Rohr's quote above is intended for the setting of Advent, and Lent is nipping at our heels, it's very appropriate when we ponder that little demon of "failed expectations." All we see is a sliver of another person's life at the time we encounter them--and in the case of the non-compliant patient, we have little to no clue of the complexities life has dealt that person. Perhaps the patient missed the appointment because she was up all night with a sick child. Perhaps the patient isn't listening because his thoughts are distracted by the worsening health of an elderly parent. Perhaps the drug-seeker is so enmeshed in his addiction that he is becoming violently physically ill. Perhaps the person angry about the bill just lost a job, or cutbacks are coming.
We tend to be pretty quick in judging "the other"--probably because, as with all complexities in this life, there's just enough of a kernel of truth in there to affirm our judgments. The fact is, a certain percentage of the time, the non-compliant patient is, indeed, non-compliant because (s)he hasn't learned a certain core set of life responsibilities, or doesn't want to learn them. The fact is, sometimes people smoke and drink too much because sometimes they simply would rather smoke and drink than change. The fact is, some people are morbidly obese because they like eating too much to stop. The mistake, however, is believing these attitudes are carved in stone for a lifetime, and the worse mistake is claiming any power or authority to fix them. Although being a doctor gives me insight in how to live a healthy life and a call to spread a gospel of the good news of health, it gives me no authority whatsoever in forcing my beliefs and choices on others.
As my spiritual director pointed out to me one day, when I was annoyed at someone not living up to my expectations, "You said yourself this person isn't normal in this regard; so why are you angry when this person doesn't act normal?"
The non-compliant patient, in this view, becomes a mirror--what do I need to consider about my expectations of others in light of a God who probably finds me rather non-compliant?