I was getting frustrated, watching his attention zip away from the homework sheet in front of him. “Yah, yah?!” he said, imitating some stupid character from some stupid movie I didn’t have time to watch because I was in medical school, dammit, and barely had time to study and eat and sleep and survive as it was. I had been spending months with this teenager, wrestling through homework assignments and essays and test prep and re-living high school drudgery through him. He was close to failing school, and now I could see why: it was because he had the attention span of an insect. A very annoying, bothersome insect.
I couldn’t handle it. “What’s the matter with you?” I yelled. He stopped briefly. “One of my patients has cancer!” I blurted out. I didn’t know why I said it, but I kept going. “He’s just a teenager, like you. He’s a good kid, a really nice guy, and he has cancer and he’s going to die, and here you are wasting your time like this!” I paused, waiting to let the moral lesson sink in.
He fell apart, but not in the way I expected. “I wish I were him!” he started bawling. “I wish I had cancer! Then everyone would feel bad for me. Everyone would pity me. People would at least think that I’m a good person, and feel sorry for me. But look at me now. I’m just a loser. I’m failing at school, I have no friends, nobody likes me at church, my parents think I’m stupid, and you’re the only person I can talk to. Who cares about me at all?”
And so it struck me that, perhaps, it is more tragic to live in anonymity, ridicule, and rejection than it is to die. It is tragic that we expend so much energy lamenting that which is often unchangeable and inescapable when there are those who are starving for just a fraction of affection, a single moment of grace. And it is tragic that even our mercy is spent on those we feel are most deserving rather than on those who could benefit the most.
That moment changed me, though I still have trouble describing why.