July 24, 2014 by The Jailhouse Doc
I cried with an inmate yesterday. We were lamenting the fact that he just found out he has a very serious, most likely terminal cancer. I didn’t diagnose this condition, but I was the first provider to see him for these vague chest/abdominal pains that I, as I do frequently, found to be “atypical chest pain.”
Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s your heart or your lungs, it will probably go away on its own. This is really common. There’s nothing else worrisome about your history or exam.
Of course,.. he had failed to mention that he’d been having abdominal pain and nausea for months but never had it checked out…. which might have clued me in to something more chronic.. I reassured him, but happened to order some lab work because he thought he had been told once he had low potassium, which, could cause chest discomfort. Little did I know what kind of can I had opened, and the ugly worms would come exploding out.
Now, CT scans and specialists visits later, the abnormal lab work and his worsening clinical condition had revealed a massive game-changer, and a fairly youngish man with near a bushel of kids is facing the possibility that he will not survive long.
Besides the fact that when you call a horse a horse and find out that, no, this one was actually a zebra, a sobering reminder for a young provider that medicine is most definitely not clear cut and obvious, I was also just reeling in the sadness of this moment as a human being. The sadness of the frailty of life, the shock of the diagnosis, the very real understanding of one’s mortality, the despair in what this will cost one’s family and how it will change the story of one’s own life and the story of one’s kids’ lives forever. The dreams that will never come to fruition. The life that may not be long enough to find redemption in second chances. The questions:
How do I tell my kids?
How does chemo work?
What caused this???
We talked for a while, I tried to be encouraging, I listened, I answered his questions as well as I could. I went back to my office. I finished my notes, wrote my referrals, and read through his medical records. I signed out my shift to the next provider, and commented on his sad situation and how nice he is, and then she said:
You know what he’s here for, right? I saw it in another note, he’s accused of (something horrible). I wish I hadn’t even read that.
And see, this is where I want to camp out for a little while.
- Is this justice?
- Is this the cosmic way of him getting what he “deserves?”
- And what does it even mean to get what you deserve?
- And who decides?
- And what is my role in this conversation, as his medical provider, as a human being, and as someone who feels very strongly about justice?
- And how does our knowledge of the sins and errors of others change our perception of them?
- And should it?
If I were to put a poll on Facebook about this, I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that most people would celebrate his diagnosis as him getting his due for what he’s done. Along with a few nasty insults. In fact, we often see people say things like this- “I hope you rot in hell.” “Karma’s a bitch.” “What goes around, comes around.” “He’ll get what he deserves in the end.” “I hope you (x, y, z).” “I want you to suffer the way that I have suffered.”
And here’s an example of someone who actually DID get the horrible news. And yet, I just can’t join in the festivities. Maybe because I saw a human being before me, and I think that’s the difference.
I have no problem with someone paying the consequences for their crimes (once they’ve had their day in court and have been found guilty, which he hasn’t, yet.) But there is something very unsettling about the allure of rejoicing over someone else’s suffering, someone I happen to know personally. Maybe I would feel differently if I didn’t know him, and just read about it in on the news. Maybe I’d feel differently if I knew first hand the experiences of the alleged victims. Maybe I’d feel differently if he was an ass hole to me. Maybe I’d feel differently if,.. a lot of circumstances.
The fact is, we judge. We judge harshly. We judge based on whatever little knowledge we have of a situation, branding people with a verdict at the first accusation. We judge based on our own history and hurts. We judge based on our biases. We judge based on how we were raised. We judge based on our political ideals. We just call it like we see it through our own warped glasses. And it’s so much easier to judge and hate than it is to see the humanity inside the worst of oppressors, and find space for compassion. And I do this too, of course. Any slight change in the story, any additional detail about his charges, if they resonated with any of my own hurts or strong opinions, and my compassion might have drained through the floor like bath water.
Compassion born of my own will is tenuous. Compassion born of Jesus defies all logic and human will. And that’s where I find myself. At the crossroads between my own judgmental heart, and the love I’m compelled to demonstrate to the broken, only possible by the infiltration of Jesus’ love into my heart. Yet again, the same evil that corrupted this man’s heart (if he indeed did what he’s accused of doing) is the same evil that fights to corrupt my own heart. It profits me nothing to become cynical and jaded. It only inhibits my ability to be compassionate. And, frankly, it’s my job to be his kind, compassionate medical provider, not his grand jury.
We spend a lot of time hiding our faults. Hoping no one ever discovers our deepest, darkest secrets. How many times do we think to ourselves, “if you only knew, you’d think differently of me!” But there is also a community movement towards authenticity, being “real,” and sharing our struggles is starting to be seen as courageous. In my own personal experience of sharing hurts and mistakes, I have found acceptance and love. But this is from people who know me, have a relationship with me, love me. If our wrongs were known to the world, into the stockade we would go, and though we might not throw rotten tomatoes at our own friends, we may very well join in imparting suffering and humiliation on those we don’t know, based on what they’ve done. So if those we know are deserving of compassion and forgiveness, surely those we don’t know are deserving as well?
There is another aspect to this drama, and that is the gradation of wrongs. How bad is the bad thing one has done. We tend to surround ourselves with people who are about as “bad” as we are, it takes a lot of courage and humility to voluntarily spend time with people who have done things considered truly heinous without feeling superior. And no matter how much we love someone and accept them for who they are, seeing the skeletons in their closets DOES change how we perceive them. It may not change our love for them, but it’s impossible to not be affected by that knowledge. Maybe we think to ourselves, “well that’s not nearly as bad as MY crap, lucky her…” or we think “Wow! Had no idea! Well at least I’ve never done THAT!” It’s twisted, it’s very human. We are so insecure. To the rational world, there IS a gradation of wrongness, and it’s totally legitimate. The punishment must match the crime, as should the level of judgment and vitriol. To the Jesus-following world, it MUST be that no wrong is worse than any other wrong, wrong is wrong and that’s it. Therefore, the wrongs that this man has allegedly committed, are no worse than my own wrongs. This is an uncomfortable reality, but it must be explored and it must be seen as truth in order for me to fully understand the consequences of my own brokenness, and the need for compassion for ALL. I cannot demand compassion for myself, if I am not willing to dole it out to those I most despise, and there are a lot of them!
I will continue to hurt for his horrible prognosis, the pain it will cause his family, and the sad fact that he may never live long enough to experience redemption in his own story- to repair the relationships that have been broken, to seek forgiveness for what he may have done, to do the work of righting one’s ship and pursuing a life of honor, integrity, honesty, love.
Will he have gotten what he “deserves” in the end? A lot will say “yes.” I’d rather just stay out of that. I don’t want to be in the business of sitting on the judgement seat, it’s not my seat and I know it, but it is so deliciously alluring. I would rather err on the side of being too nice. Too caring. Too compassionate. Because that, at least, I can justify.