17 March 2009

Kicking at the darkness

Two patients died earlier this week.

Now, I'll grant that in the day-to-day running of any hospital anywhere in the world, this may not seem such a significant event. People die every day. And this is doubly true in the world of head and neck surgical oncology, where the overall survival rate hovers around 50%.

Before you chastise me for being impersonal: this knowledge is just the opposite. Instead of depersonalizing, it frees the head and neck surgeon to negotiate the increasingly blurred line between physician and priest, to be fully present in someone's life at its most weighty.

But things are different on the ship. The hospital is smaller (it's a ship, after all), and most of the surgery we do is not for malignant disease. We work, instead, to restore to patients the right to look human, the right to re-enter society.

So death hits harder.

And it makes one ask: Why, then, continue? Specifically, what's the point of attempting, in our imperfect way, to heal, when all healed people eventually die? Why prolong the inevitable?

Obviously, this question isn't an original one. In the introduction to his 1849 book, The Sickness Unto Death, Søren Kierkegaard asks this of a well-known story:

And what help would it have been to Lazarus to be awakened from the dead, if the thing must end after all with his dying?

Unfortunately, his answer, though unequivocally true, is too glib to be satisfying. Perhaps a better articulation (in both the negative and the positive) comes from the Anglican Bishop of Durham, a bald, bearded man named N. Thomas Wright:
If you turn faith into simply the hope for pie in the sky when you die, and an escapist spirituality in the present, you turn your back on the theme which makes sense of the whole story... [You] may feel some sympathy for the battered and bedraggled figure in the ditch, but [your] message to him will always be that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter because the main thing is to escape this wicked world altogether.

But that's not all there is. In the Christian aesthetic, he writes elsewhere,
the world is beautiful not just because it hauntingly reminds us of its creator, but also because it is pointing forward: it is designed to be filled, flooded, drenched...as a chalice is beautiful not least because of what we know it is designed to contain, or as a violin is beautiful not least because we know the music of which it is capable.

And that is why. We do this because, in an imperfect world, we see—and have fallen in love with—the perfection for which it was intended. We do this because we know that this darkness—of sickness, of tumors, of poverty, of war—isn't what was meant to be.

We do this because we know that there is a light behind it all, and that this very world, this very creation, will one day become light—but not just one day, not just in the sweet by and by. See, here's what's most important. We work because, in working, in the smallest and most imperfect way, we might just be a bit part in that redemption, right now, right here.

So that's the crux: despite the deaths, despite the setbacks, we know that the Barenaked Ladies, those most sage of Canadian philosophers, were right. We have to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Sometimes, though, the darkness kicks back.

Rest in peace.

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