Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On Small Mercies

I was recently asked to give a reflection at our monthly ACE Advocate meeting. I've done these before, and they have often shown up here on my blog. Following the reflection, I was asked if I'd be happy for it to be published (quietly, I'm not one out for much publication) and I agreed. Having been MIA here the past year, it might be time to get back into the habit of writing, so I'm going to start off with the reflection and see how we go from there... So here is my reflection, the Year of Mercy, from the perspective of a medical doctor - Feb 2016.
Forgive me, I am going to unburden myself. And in a very un-teacher like way, I’m going to do so by plagiarizing people much smarter than me. I suspect it’s a good thing, though, that Motorhead didn’t have many songs about mercy, or we’d be listening to some music.

I feel like this is an appropriate day for me to give the reflection, based on the reading. But I also think I might be coming at this from a very different direction than I have in the past. The past few months, for me, have been plagued with indecision, uncertainty, blind-siding misery, and upheaval. Some of you may remember that the last reflection I gave was Jan 2014. I talked about change. And New Year’s revolutions. I am sorry to say that I am not entering 2016 with the same optimism. So I suppose it’s good that I’m not here to talk about optimism; I’m here to talk about mercy.

I found it apt that Pope Francis declared a Holy Year of Mercy, speaking of his thoughts on the Church’s mission to be a witness to mercy. He has, in my opinion, shed light on the need for forgiveness, on the human need for comfort, by simple and humble means. But mercy, like any of God’s gifts, is something that the harder I think about it, the less concrete it becomes. So where Francis says, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” Chesterton would say, “Children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” So what is it? What is mercy? And where do I find it? Because I’ll tell you, right now, it feels like I need it.

There is no easy way to say this. Mercy, in my line of work, comes out in what we tend to code as, “Small Blessings” or “Small Mercies.” It’s our round about way of saying that something is horrible, but it probably could have been worse. That I know the names and faces of the clergy and lay ministers that serve the hospitals I work in – small mercy; that of all the doctors and nurses that pass through the doors, they tend to know me – that’s a bit of a pity. I remember one horrible night, I was up and down the halls as much as our priest. And the fourth time I went flying past him, he called out, “Are we winning?” I looked at him like he had five heads and told him he’d seen too much of me for it to be winning. He smiled and said, “Ah, but at least I’ve seen you. Thank God for small mercies.”

I’ve had a bad run at work. The past half dozen shifts I’ve done saw the handful of things you only tend to see once or twice in a career. I’ve found myself saying and hearing the word mercy without knowing if it’s a real thing. The boy that crossed in front of the bus and was knocked down by a taxi – small blessing the cab wasn’t accelerating. That he only suffered a broken leg – small mercy. He’ll walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and only after the 5th surgery to correct the damage. But it could have been worse, couldn’t it?

The baby that was brought in at midnight, CPR from the ambulance crew for 30 minutes before reaching us. She had no pulse. In fact, she hadn’t had a pulse for at least an hour. It was 10 minutes before we were allowed to withhold resuscitation and declare death. That we didn’t recover a pulse in that 10 minutes – Small mercy. That I was 3 hours late leaving the department that night – shame, because, as HR told me, it was my own fault for not leaving on time.

Two days before Christmas, the little boy that mum knew just wasn’t quite right, she was right. Cancer. Mets to the liver. Mets to the lungs. Mets to the lymph nodes. There is no clemency there. No possible condolence to make right what had to be said. That I finished my shift two hours later, saw another four patients, stood as a shoulder for my colleague, for the nurses, for the mum and the grandmother, and managed to get into my car before crying – that was a small mercy.

That one patient, the one that everyone knew, because she was always so sick. Sick with her inborn problems, sick with complications, sick with the flu. Her charts stacked higher than her head, because she’d struggled with life from first breath. We all knew her. We’d all treated her. And she was in again. And when she died, we thought, “Good for her.” Death - small mercy.

I lost my cousin last May. He was 35; married; 3 young girls. It was cancer. A rare, nearly unheard of type of cancer at his age. No one knew how to treat it, but the survival rates were not promising. Months not years. It was aggressive. Weeks not months. And it metastasized. Days not weeks. And I had the first proper row with my mother in years, when she demanded that I be optimistic and stop being a doctor about it. But that’s what I do. It’s who I am. And when it was quick, I told my family that it was a small mercy and they nodded in agreement.

And with all these small mercies building up around me, above me, in me, I sometimes feel like I will break from them. It is too much to carry. All this mercy. Is it though? I can’t go on…

… I’ll go on (Thomas Beckett).

If you believe the old poets, Mercy… has a human heart (William Blake). And suffering is a gift – in it is hidden mercy (Rumi). Forgiveness when we don’t seek it. Compassion when we don’t deserve it. And somehow, it seems, that at the end of the day, the limitlessness of God’s mercy is only fathomed by the inability to accept it. It seems impossible. Get up and walk.

And this is where mercy becomes real for me. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? (JRR Tolkien) I can’t. But. The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me. (Thomas Merton).

2016 has, thus far, been peppered with loss on many different levels for many different people. And we’ve discussed showing mercy to others. So my question for reflection tonight is this: Where do you let God’s Mercy into your life? How do you let it in? How are you merciful with yourself?

The publication can be found online here: Reality - April 2016

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