The question comes from a patient in the Emergency Department. She has come because of two days of abdominal pain, and diagnostics have revealed the cause to be appendicitis. As the surgeon on call, this is where I come in.
After introductions, history-taking, examination, and discussion of test results, I lay out the treatment plan. In this situation, the only curative course is surgery, which I explain in detail. She poses a few intelligent, pertinent questions which I answer. She expresses understanding and agrees to proceed. Then she hesitates, fixes me with her gaze and asks, "Are you a Believer?"
Up to this point, it seemed we had established a therapeutic rapport- she was prepared to allow me to operate upon her. And now this....
I hesitated a moment. I didn't want a conflict. I didn't want to get into a religious debate. Most of all, I didn't want her to refuse treatment because of me. I didn't want it to be personal. Then I realized that choice was entirely hers to make. It wasn't really about me at all. She asked the question -- I would give the answer.
To be entirely clear, I asked "What are you referring to?"
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior?"
"No, I do not."
A look of distrust, contemplation, then resignation. The moment passes. I assure her I will do my very best for her. She thanks me.
I am baffled- why is my religious affiliation or personal belief relevant? Most people ask, "How long have you been a surgeon?" or "How many of these operations have you done?". But that was not what mattered to her.
As as I continued to mull it over, I came up with a number of clever or evasive responses. But that just makes it about me, or rather how I want her to think about me. The fact is, nothing I say is likely to change her way of thinking, nor should I try to do so. If my beliefs don't matter as her surgeon, neither do hers matter as my patient. They are a force of division, and of no use here.
We've become so polarized -- always looking for reasons to separate ourselves from others. We feel that separateness sets us apart not only as different, but as better. The inclination is to find fault, to condemn or exploit anything we feel is unlike ourselves-- nationality, religion, race, gender, sexuality. It is the holding on to those identities for ourselves and the labeling and rejection of them in others that divides us and causes so much suffering.
These judgements and hatred poison our hearts and minds, much as my patient's rotten appendix was poisoning her body. Had she chosen not to overlook my lack of faith in Jesus Christ, and refused to allow me to remove her appendix, her condition would have deteriorated. So must we all rid ourselves of the poisonous delusions of identity and separateness if there is to be any healing of the world.
Musings on my travels and experiences as a Zen practitioner, trauma surgeon, and citizen of the world.
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