Scum of the World

I could hear the cussing from inside the room and noted the awkward glances of nearby nurses and staff who turned to look and gawk. Even though I only sat a few feet outside the door, I ignored the increasingly loud litany of expletives and deliberately focused on the screen in front of me. He was my patient and I was doing my best to concentrate on his rapidly evolving list of medical problems, the electronic progress note already ballooning in front of me as I tried to prioritize multiple terminal conditions competing for attention. I scrolled through pages of old notes that were littered with repeating instances of phrases such as “lost to follow up,” “did not comply with therapy,” “uncooperative,” and the ever favored, “signed out against medical advice.” I paused and watched as a freshly berated specialist walked out of the room, sat down at a nearby computer, and dictated into his own note the word “belligerent.” The diction snob inside me was pleasantly surprised to hear a new and applicable word and so I inserted it into my note as well.

Last week my pastor asked me, “How do you keep from becoming cynical?” The question caught me off guard; it occurred in the context of a series of conversations on the struggles of caring for people in both spiritual as well as physical matters. My reply was somewhat flippant as I didn’t have a good response. The question was unintentionally pointed; Pastor Tom is a quick-witted man and one of the many reasons why I respect him so much is that even though he appreciates a dry and sardonic sense of humor, he intentionally suppresses it. By contrast, I relish in lengthy conversations about all things dark and cynical. In college I would rant about the evils of systems of poverty, child slave labor, sex trafficking. Nowadays I rant about urban violence, health disparities, child abuse, racism, Donald Trump. I am not shy about these views and justify vocalizing them as a mechanism for challenging injustice, but the genuine and curious nature of Pastor Tom’s question left me unexpectedly exposed to scrutiny. After all, what is justice and how does that apply in medicine? What is the root of cynicism and why are criticism and sarcasm so satisfying?

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Scum of the World

If I Have Not Love

Not going to lie, I get jealous, and what I tend to get jealous of the most is the happiness of others. A lot of it is inspired by Facebook; as someone with a lot of Asian friends, there are plenty of pictures of food in my feed, but there is also no shortage of other things I am jealous of. There are pictures of happy couples, happy bachelor parties, happy vacations, happy weddings, happy babies, even happy pets for crying out loud. I thought I was the only person to feel this way, until I read this article:

Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life,” he told me.

It is a very human thing to do, and as a human, I find it rather bothersome. I wish it weren’t the case, so don’t waste your breath giving me instructions and platitudes about how to be happier and feel more fulfilled. I know the answer already: eat better food and take pictures of it to post online. Or complain about it on a blog.

In all seriousness, much of it stems from feeling entitled and resentful. To quote an earlier post:

I still can’t describe exactly what it was I felt enti­tled to, but it was prob­a­bly a num­ber of things: a pat on the back, grat­i­tude, respect, change. I guess I wanted to fit in enough to be accepted, but stick out enough to be exalted. And phras­ing all this so bluntly sounds ter­ri­bly ego­tis­ti­cal and obnox­ious, but it is what I strug­gle with, and I describe it because per­haps you strug­gle with it too. There is a need­i­ness deep inside me for what I sub­con­sciously believe is the right­ful rec­om­pense for my efforts. Some days it is just the right to be thanked, to a quiet home at night, or to work­ing heat in the house. Other days, it is the right to have my desires ful­filled, to be praised, to see pos­i­tive results in my work.

But in real­ity, I deserve none of these things. My sen­ti­ments of enti­tle­ment run deep, but they run foul.

The reason why I mention these things so publicly and honestly is because the feelings recur periodically, and I find myself needing to preach the gospel to the self just as often. During this round of weary, introspective conversations with said self, I was reminded of the relationship between self-sacrifice and love:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. — 1 Corinthians 13

I used to read this passage in a very legalistic way. I would say to myself, “Self, you need to be more loving, more giving, more compassionate, more empathetic.” And I would beat myself up about my inability to love and live up to such high standards. But now, in reading it, I notice something very different. I ask myself, “Self, is this passage about the love that you give, or the love that you receive?”

Self, this passage is about what you gain from love, and what you can expect the love of Jesus Christ to be like. For if you do not embrace the love of Christ, if you do not allow it to speak grace and affection and meaning into your soul, then all the truth you speak will seem hollow and empty, and all the sacrificial and painful work you do will be as nothing, will taste like sawdust and bitterness in your mouth. But if you do accept it, it will drive out your jealousy and boasting, it will grow you into full adulthood, and it will endure into eternity.

So, possess the promise and truth that is your namesake: David, beloved by God. And it wouldn’t be a bad thing either to lighten up either; I hear people are getting tired of reading about shootings all the time.


If I Have Not Love