Failing Faithfully: Created, Fallen, and Waiting

[This is an advance post in a series from the ESN blog. You can find the first part here or here.]

In the first post of this series, I was ruminating about a patient who had a rapid decline in health and social circumstances, culminating in a recent scan that showed the possibility of cancer even while he was struggling with homelessness. It was a bleak situation that caught me off guard because I was not expecting it and was grieved to think of what it would be like for him to die alone.

He has since died.

Continue reading “Failing Faithfully: Created, Fallen, and Waiting”

Failing Faithfully: Created, Fallen, and Waiting

On Technology, Thanksgiving, and Patience

[Originally written in 2007 for a campus publication while I was in medical school; it has remained disquietingly relevant. It will be posted on the ESN blog tomorrow.]

Black Friday death count as of Thanksgiving 2013.
Black Friday death count as of Thanksgiving 2013.

We have become impatient, unfulfilled, and perpetually fixated on the future. We have filled our lives with so much hardware and noise that it makes us wonder if we too will waste away into a dull obsolescence.

I had never been to a Black Friday shopping spree before. The thought of camping out for hours in the chilling pre-​dawn night always seemed perverse to me… but that was before I started browsing the Black Friday ads and listening to stories of stunning deals and bargains.

I thought I had conquered technolust a long time ago. In high school I was often caught up in buying the latest gadget or computer upgrade. A fascination with the cutting edge of technology later compelled me to major in electrical engineering, but by the time I graduated from Princeton I had become jaded with technology. The whole industry seemed perverse: laboring over a piece of silicon whose sole function was to glue children to computer screens; developing incredible technologies that were only available to the richest of the rich; seeing this year’s hottest items become next year’s trash. As much as I admired the creative and hard-​working spirit of modern engineers, I couldn’t bring myself to love the things they made anymore. At least, not enough to buy thousands of dollars worth of stuff.

Until Thanksgiving Day.

My brother and I were perched over a computer monitor, poring through rumored Black Friday discounts. Like a commercial advertisement, images of iPads and DVDs danced in my mind to the background music of self-​justification. How could it be considered greed to buy a discounted gift for a loved one? Wouldn’t it be perfect to be able to give great gifts for only half the price? Wasn’t that being responsible and economic with my finances: an example of good stewardship? I began constructing an appealing image of the next morning’s escapade: camping out on the sidewalk with a thermos of hot chocolate while listening to medical school lectures and greeting fellow shoppers with holiday cheer. The thought of studying for exams, finishing my Christmas shopping, building character, and dispensing goodwill towards all men (all at the same time) was becoming very attractive.

Then I opened my e-​mail inbox and read a message from a friend at school. We were taking the same public health class and our professor, Dr. Mark Robson, was featured in the Star Ledger’s front page article. Normally I would have been very happy to see Dr. Robson featured in the newspaper. He is a jovial man who enjoys making fun of his weight, age, and students. He’s the sort of professor I trusted to care about my person as well as my education. Unfortunately, the newspaper article was about Professor Robson’s younger brother, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months prior.

While reading the article, I remembered how stunned the class was to hear the news. Despite the loss, Prof. Robson was back teaching only a week after the death. He briefly told us about the tragedy and did his best to get through the three-​hour lecture. The first hour was characterized by the same style we had come to enjoy from him: well-​paced and filled with jokes, theory, and trivia. But the second hour addressed agriculture and farming—elements that surely reminded him of his brother —and his voice suddenly faltered and lost its confidence. He became monotone and listless until the end of class.

A few weeks later, his father passed away as well. The Star Ledger article described it like this:

Then, just before this year’s spring planting, Art [Prof. Robson’s father] began feeling ill. Tests revealed blocked ducts in his liver. Doctors put in a stent and sent him home, a ritual they would repeat right up to the summer day Joan Robson looked out the window to see her husband, weak with fever, being helped in from the fields by Neil [Prof. Robson’s brother]. His cancer was diagnosed after that, but by then it was clear Art wouldn’t see the harvest.

Neil didn’t talk much about it, but everyone knew how hard he was taking the news. He, like all of them, was bracing for the worst– only the worst, when it arrived one evening in late September, was not the thing for which they’d prepared…1

Reading the article about my professor’s family forced me to reflect on the stark contrast between the true holiday of Thanksgiving and the pseudoholiday of Black Friday. I had allowed the latter to corrupt the former. Rather than giving thanks for what I already had, my mind was fixated on the thought of getting more. Impatience had found a way to fuel greed, allowing the joy of today to be spoiled by the promises of tomorrow. While I do not fault technology for these shortcomings, it would be foolish to ignore how technology has made me more vulnerable to them.

One phenomenon of technology is its capacity for instant gratification: the elimination of the gap between desire and fulfillment. Back in the day, if I wanted to make an expensive purchase, I’d have to wait until I had all the cash on hand. Today, I can charge it all to my credit card and delay full payment for months or even years. Back in the day, if I wanted to write something and share it with a wide readership, I would have to find an editor willing to publish my work. I’d have meticulously edited the text so that it could convey its meaning precisely while also making sure that it didn’t unintentionally reveal something private. Today, I can blog and share with millions of people exactly what I had for lunch or what I thought about the classmate who snores in lecture. The delay between a thought and an act has been abolished.

The objectivity, precision, and efficiency that we enjoy from science and technology have obscured our sense of mysticism. It is difficult for us to see the worth of the disciplines of meditation, fasting, and prayer: exercises that require patience and selflessness. In his book “Compassion: A Refection on the Christian Life,” Henri Nouwen grapples with the concept of impatience:

Impatience always has something to do with time. When we are impatient with speakers, we want them to stop speaking or to move on to another subject. When we are impatient with children, we want them to stop crying, asking for ice cream, or running around. When we are impatient with ourselves, we want to change our bad habits, finish a set task, or move ahead faster. Whatever the nature of our impatience, we want to leave the physical or mental state in which we find ourselves and move to another, less uncomfortable place. When we express our impatience, we reveal our desire that things will change as soon as possible… Essentially, impatience is experiencing the moment as empty, useless, meaningless. It is wanting to escape from the here and now as soon as possible…

Clock time is outer time, time that has a hard, merciless objectivity to it. Clock time leads us to wonder how much longer we have to live and whether “real life” has not already passed us by. Clock time makes us disappointed with today and seems to suggest that maybe tomorrow, next week, or next year it will really happen. Clock time keeps saying, “Hurry, hurry, time goes fast, maybe you will miss the real thing! But there is still a chance… Hurry to get married, find a job, visit a country, read a book, get a degree… Try to take it all in before you run out of time.” Clock time always makes us depart. It breeds impatience and prevents any compassionate being together… (Nouwen, 96–98)

Text and instant messaging, blogging, peer-​to-​peer networking, Blackberries, Facebook, and a bevy of other novelties have revolutionized the ways in which we can save clock time and communicate efficiently, but they have not given us something meaningful to communicate about. Though we are able to do more, the question becomes, “Are we doing anything worthwhile?” We once perceived the delay between thought and action to be a waste, but perhaps its loss has caused us to lose the meaning behind the things we do. Instead of giving thanks at Thanksgiving, we go out and buy more junk. Instead of rediscovering treasure at Christmastime, we find ourselves in more debt. Instead of composing a letter or crafting an article, we instant message and blog. Instead of finding entertainment and joy in simple diversions, we compulsively check e-​mail, Facebook, and YouTube. We have lost the dual senses of anticipation and delight in the moment: the waiting, meditating, and “wasting of time” that once made the product of our furious efforts something worthwhile. We have become impatient, unfulfilled, and perpetually fixated on the future. We have filled our lives with so much hardware and noise that it makes us wonder if we too will waste away into a dull obsolescence.

We desperately hope that these things are more efficient ways of building community and yet are often hard pressed to find in them true and full moments of thanksgiving, gratitude, affection, and compassion. Nouwen describes patience as having “hope for the moment” and encourages us to remember those moments in which we have enjoyed the fullness of patience:

Perhaps such moments have been rare in our lives, but they belong among those precious memories that can offer hope and courage during restless and tense periods. These patient moments are moments in which we have a very different experience of time. It is the experience of the moment as full, rich, and pregnant… These moments are not necessarily happy, joyful, or ecstatic. They may be full of sorrow and pain, or marked by agony and struggle. What counts is the experience of fullness, inner importance, and maturation. What counts is the knowledge that in that moment real life touched us. From such moments we do not want to move away; rather, we want to live them to the fullest…

It is this full time, pregnant with new life, that can be found through the discipline of patience. As long as we are the slaves of the clock and the calendar, our time remains empty and nothing really happens. Thus, we miss the moment of grace and salvation. But when patience prevents us from running from the painful moment in the false hope of finding our treasure elsewhere, we can slowly begin to see that the fullness of time is already here and that salvation is already taking place. Then, too, we can discover that in and through Christ all human events can become divine events in which we discover the compassionate presence of God… (Nouwen, 98–100)2

I write this article in the bowels of a medical school study room and must confess that the whole concept of patience seems incredibly difficult. There are times when I just want to leave this place and be done with it all: the late, caffeinated nights; the pressure of exams and the stress to achieve; the quiet and dim study halls that evoke sentiments of frustration and anxiety. I want to move on and be somewhere else and do something different. I want to be out of school; I want to earn a living; I want to serve the poor; I want to have a family; I want to procrastinate; I want everything and to be anywhere and do anything else except the where and the how and the what of the now. But the call of Christ is for me to enter into a divine moment and understand that I have been placed here – in this discrete unit of time – for a purpose. Looking back, I must also admit that there have been times even in this school when I have laughed and enjoyed the company of other students; when I have stared at my notes in amazement at the complexity and intricacy of life; and when I have realized that I am precisely where God wants me to be. The very next moment may bring a phone call or an e-​mail from a friend that brings with it a conversation of joy or sorrow. The next moment may simply be a continuation of this moment’s reflection. Regardless, I am learning to trust that there is a time for everything and that this moment holds its own special and sacred purpose in the narrative of God’s divine history.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. – Ecclesiastes 3:1–14

  1. “A Harvest of Compassion,” Star Ledger, 23 Nov. 2006: 1. []
  2. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: a Reflection on the Christian Life (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1982). []

[Note that I have updated some cultural references.]

On Technology, Thanksgiving, and Patience


You can take me out the hood, but can’t take the hood out me
Cause I’m ghetto.
50 cent, LB, & TY


I froze and my heart went racing. Time stops during an adrenaline rush, but a moment later I started to figure out what was happening. First, I realized that I had instinctively crouched and angled myself behind a slender tree. Then I realized that everyone else outside was still ambling down the street casually as if nothing had happened. The friend I’d been walking and talking with was already a few steps ahead and was now looking at me curiously, only just realizing that I had gone rigid, defensive, and wide-eyed.

I felt stupid. The sound came from a noisy truck that then clattered its way down the road, past the silent streetlamps and closed town shops of the suburban downtown center we were strolling through. It was ironic; we had just been talking about how different life in my neighborhood was from the environment we had grown up in and how much I enjoyed the sense of community there in comparison to the more isolated existence in the suburbs.

It’s amazing how much a year can change you.


A few weeks earlier…


Silence. I nearly dropped my groceries but then realized that the sounds were coming from somewhere beyond the backyard lot I was in. I had time, so I shut the car door and ran into the house. I locked the door, set down the bags, and listened. More silence. No more shots, no screeching car tires, but no sirens. Not yet. I waited a few more minutes, trying to listen over my own thudding heartbeat. Still nothing. I cautiously opened the door; other neighbors were doing the same, and I watched a car drive casually down the street.

Still no sirens, no flashing lights. I don’t know what possessed me except a few rapid calculations and conclusions that dominated my thoughts:

There are no more shots. People are starting to come out. Since it is broad daylight, most of the danger has probably passed.

But there are no sirens. No police. No EMS. It could take them minutes more.

Somebody could be seriously hurt. They might not have time.

Other cars are driving around…

If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?

I did something that, in retrospect, was really, really stupid. I got into my car and started to drive around the block.


It has been one year since moving into my current neighborhood, and it was an exciting, thrilling anniversary to celebrate. I wrote the following during my one month anniversary, when this website was first created:

… In ret­ro­spect, it was one of the best deci­sions I have ever made, since each day brings me a new story and hints that the life I once knew was not the life I was made for. It seems almost nat­ural, with each pass­ing day I am here, to believe that this is the way we should all live, though I am will­ing to give it more time to see the truth in that.

What did I do? I moved from a nice, sin­gle apart­ment near the hos­pi­tal I work at and into a row house in the inner city where my patients live. I moved out of a fully fur­nished site with laun­dry and Fios and easy access to every mod­ern con­ve­nience into a shared house and a room like my col­lege dorm except smaller, with­out air con­di­tion­ing, and with plenty of cock­roaches and a gas leak that’s worse every time it rains. I moved away from neigh­bors I loved who were fel­low physi­cians in train­ing and into a house on a block where the neigh­bors shrug and freely con­fess they deal drugs to “make ends meet”, hold vig­ils in my back park­ing lot for gang­sters who were shot, and are crazy enough to try my home cook­ing. I moved away from every­thing that was com­fort­able and safe into a world of rumors and sen­sa­tional rep­u­ta­tions and risk.

I thought I was going to write this blog to show off how dar­ing and cav­a­lier I am, but it really is just to share my daily strug­gle to over­come my fear of small things like the dark. I thought I was going to write about thugs and hood­lums, but there are only hon­est peo­ple, funny peo­ple, warm and tragic and open hearted peo­ple, under­stand­able peo­ple here. I thought I came here to embrace the suf­fer­ing and the lost, but am find­ing that it was I who needed a home.

I hope you enjoy the com­pany you find here.

All those words still hold true, though their depth and character have matured with time. Some things change you, often more profoundly and deeply than the things you try to change. I thought about this a few days after this particular shooting when D, a neighbor and friend, and I went out to grab a lunch one Sunday afternoon. We ate a good lunch at a “local” diner, which was only two miles away from our houses but still a fair distance away from the “inner city.” It sat on a corner in what I had considered to be a blue-collar neighborhood, and as we drove around that block, D said, “This used to be a much nicer area, with houses that everyone wanted to live in. Doctors and lawyers used to live here.”

I was stunned for several reasons. One thing was my automatic disbelief; all the physician and lawyer houses I had ever been to were at least double, if not triple, the size of any of the tired houses before me. It seemed unbelievable that these houses had either depreciated in value or that professional salaries had increased that much. D was certainly the authority on the matter though; he was not only a construction contractor, but had grown up on the very block I lived in and, over a half-century of shared history with the city, had become my local historian and cultural expert. In fact, he told me once that doctors and lawyers used to live as neighbors on our block… the same block that now had half its doors boarded up, that had sex offenders and ex-cons taking up a fair percentage of the remaining homes, that had police sweeping the area for crack dens and gunshot calls.

The other thing that stunned me was that I, and perhaps D as well, had completely forgotten that a doctor still lived in the neighborhood. Me.


My hands trembling from the adrenaline, my ears still keen for the sounds of gunfire, I turned the corner out of my lot and down the street. I immediately saw a crowd of people gathered on the corner ahead and ran through another series of thoughts:

Lots of people means it’s probably very safe. People probably knew who did the shooting, and that he (or she?) was long gone.

But there are still no sirens, no lights, no police, no EMS.

And a crowd of people can only mean one thing: someone is down.

I parked at the curb and jumped out. I grabbed my emergency medical kit from the trunk, made sure to lock the door, and ran towards the man hold a blood-soaked towel to himself…

“Here they are!” people said with mixed relief. If they knew I was just a passerby, just a resident with a medical kit he bought on eBay, they might have been more worried…

Pulses were intact. There was little active bleeding left. Wound looked through and through.

No signs of shock yet, relatively little blood loss, and no evidence of major arterial or visceral damage.

Just hold pressure.

I then became dimly aware of another set of hands, of uniforms and radios, of holstered guns, of sirens — thank God for the sirens! — and my own trembling fingers. The patient was loaded up into an ambulance and rapidly disappeared. I finally became aware that some of the hysterical shouting had died down, that I was surrounded by yellow police tape, and that a number of police officers and firefighters were looking at me and my little orange bag very curiously.

“So… what are you doing here?” one of them asked with a very, very puzzled look on his face.

“I live here, just around the block.”

“Oh.” He paused. “Well, then you’re going to need a lot more bandages in that kit of yours.”

I looked down at my bag. He was right.


So that’s the story of treating my first gunshot wound “in the field,” as ER people like say. I was never an ER type of person; I like to sit around and mull things over, to tap out my thoughts onto a computer screen, to hem and haw and debate and discuss ideas over a cup of tea or even a muffin. I am not an adrenaline junkie; when I get nervous and wired, I begin to pace as my hands shake like a sheet of paper. I am not a risk taker; I am naturally an introvert whose idea of a good time is maybe going out to a movie and whose vacations generally consist of reading, writing, TV shows, and catching up with friends.


These are the sounds of firecrackers and bottle rockets, sounds that startle me in ways they never did before. They are supposed to be the sounds of celebration and liberty:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — Declaration of Independence

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. — Constitution

We celebrate those who take radical steps in departure from norms and stereotypes and typical expectations, who act decisively to forge something new or to defend something sacred, who act to move beyond the “ordinary and proper” in displacement as Henri Nouwen likes to say. But he would be quick to point out that the most radical thing is not what we do, but how and why we obey.

Let us not mistake the idea of voluntary displacement as an invitation to dramatic action. We might think that in order to become compassionate people we must make great farewell gestures to our families, friends, homes, and jobs. Such an interpretation of the call to displacement is more in the spirit of the American pioneers than in the spirit of the disciples of Christ. What we need to understand above all else is that voluntary displacement can only be an expression of discipleship when it is a response to a call — or, to say the same thing, when it is an act of obedience. Christians whose lives are marked by impressive forms of displacement explain their movements not as self-initiated projects with clear-cut objectives and goals, but as responses to a divine invitation that usually requires a long time to be heard and understood. — Henri Nouwen, Compassion

I am slowly realizing that I am made for the neighborhood because a neighborhood is about relationships and people far more than it is about resources and circumstances and gunshots and stuff. I remember the first time I heard gunshots in the neighborhood, how I breathlessly ducked beneath windows and spread myself out on the floor. It seems a little silly in retrospect and in comparison, and though I don’t think I will ever run towards the sound of gunfire again, I am coming to understand what Jesus meant when he asked us to simply become a good neighbor.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance apriest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” — Luke 10

I ordered some “combat wound dressing,” designed to stop profuse bleeding quickly. Hope I don’t have to use it!

Part 2: On Hope

After a brutal series of Christmas shifts in the ER, I had finally come home for the holidays. My mother and I were in the kitchen, talking like we used to. We had seen and loved the new Les Miserables film, and so I brought up an interesting question from an interview with Samantha Barks, who played Eponine:

Interviewer: I think aside from “I Dreamed a Dream”, “On My Own” is probably one of the most loved songs of the musical, and I think it’s fascinating that the two most recognized and loved are just the two most heartbreaking songs, so what does it say about us as an audience that the songs that we connect with are the most heartbreaking songs?

My mother was quiet as she thought about it. “I think,” she said, “that it is something we all share in common. We all suffer, and know what it means to lose a dream or to be disappointed. We all know how it feels.”

In those moments, I was reminded of how much of her life and our family history was filled with a tragedy not too different from that of Les Miserables. Half of our family tree was missing or unknown, scattered and wiped out during the Communist revolution in China. My grandparents’ histories were characterized by their flight from the war: watching massacres of schoolmates while hiding in the bushes, stepping on dead bodies to avoid landmines, being trafficked via hay carts and ships in order to seek refuge in Taiwan. My parents grew up in the grinding poverty of the rural villages there, their childhood overshadowed by the threat of imminent war, their education grimly driven by the hope of an opportunity to emigrate to the US so that they could form a family here… so that their future children — meaning I — could have a better life.

Without knowing my thoughts, my mother spoke again. “I really like that song from the carriage… where he has the little girl sleeping in his lap and realizes that everything is different now he has a child.” She paused. “You know, everything is different when there is a child. Your whole world changes.” Suddenly, I remembered a day from medical school that struck me the same way:

She wouldn’t stop crying, so I picked her up before realizing that the diaper was wet. The sun was setting and the room was dim and quiet, disturbed only by the peripheral noises of the hospital hallway and the sound of her distress. I gingerly held her up, setting her flat on the bed, and watched her arms wave from side to side as I puzzled over how to change my first diaper.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Stop crying.” She didn’t listen and I spent a few moments fumbling with the pacifier before sitting down in the rocking chair, swinging back and forth easily with the infant cradled in my arms. A plastic music box hanging on the edge of the crib’s stainless-steel safety bars began playing a lullaby. We rocked and swayed, rustling quietly in the dusky shadows of twilight. It was as if the hospital, that crazy world of light and noise and pain and angst, had rumbled off into the distance and lazily forgot to bother us for now.

… I couldn’t recall the details, save the small fact that we were now responsible for her. We, meaning the hospital and the State of New Jersey, who were granted temporary custody as the parents were “currently indisposed of for the time being.” I thought about all the other rooms on the pediatric floor, each of which held two beds: one for the patient and one for the caretaker. Each room had its own guardian: an anxious mother or grandparent or cousin or other relative. Each room except this one.

I remembered the words of a nurse who stood by the bed at rounds, updating us on the baby’s condition. “She’s doing well,” the nurse reported, thoroughly distracted by the baby. The team continued talking about the details of custody and social work while the nurse remained preoccupied. She cooed at the baby. “Hey,” she said quietly, gently caressing the swaddling clothes: “It’s going to be a tough world out there.”

… And so we rocked, back and forth, and I thought and thought. Did she know how alone she was? What kind of person would she become? Who would rise up to defend her weakness, her frailty and vulnerability? If she met me in ten, twenty, thirty years from now, would she still let me hold her in my arms? Why couldn’t I adopt her? How different will it be on the day I hold my own child? Unfamiliar feelings of affection, of unknown protection and helplessness swilled around inside of me, centered but unfocused on this loose bundle of warmed clothing and weak, spastic movements. I didn’t know how to feel or how to respond. I still don’t.

I couldn’t wait to write this stuff down, mainly because I didn’t know what to do with all these ambiguous thoughts. I only held her for a few minutes and yet it’s taken me two days to articulate what I’ve been feeling. Who will love her? Who will dream good dreams for her at night? Who will give her the first cherry ice pop, the first kiss on her scraped knee? Who will keep her safe in this world of terrors?


“I have had this all my life, and I am going to get wid of it!”

“Rid of it,” her therapist corrected.

“W-right.” She turned her head to grin at us, and I couldn’t stop smiling. We were all lying on exercise mats in the therapy rooms because, as the therapist taught us, we could use “gwavity” to help roll those “r’s” better. I was sure she was one of the therapist’s favorite patients: diligent, focused, and with a personality composed entirely of laughter and light. In less than fifteen minutes, through listening to her “chawming pwonun-sheation,” I had already named her as a favorite. Few of my little patients were as mature, knowledgeable, and thrillingly articulate at the dignified age of seven.

And in that moment, I thought about the Newtown massacre and the fact that there must have been precious little difference between any of those children and this young girl who was now sprinkling glitter on a craft snowman, that even the best and brightest of us still live in that same world of terrors.


My mother spoke again. “My favorite song is that one Jean Valjean prays, about bringing him home… it is such a beautiful prayer. He says, ‘You can take, you can give… If I die, let me die; let him live… bring him home.’”

We talked some more, then she said this: “Life is filled with such suffering, you know. There is so much sorrow… but there are moments when God saves.”

That night, I went to my old bedroom and pulled a stack of journals off the bookcase. They were etched on eight, nine, ten years ago with an illegible scrawl that reflected the tired and stress-filled times they were written in. I leafed through the many yellowed pages of thought-scratch, reliving those moments of anxiety and worry. So many of them were desperate calls to God about things I no longer remember now, reflecting crisis after crisis that seem trivial and inconsequential now. I wanted to laugh at the little boy, his deep insecurities and obsession with doubt and suffering, and say, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

But I didn’t because I realized that even I, the same boy a decade later, am still immersed in my own world of sorrows, conflicts, despair, and cynicism. In the New Year, like every year, we are hopeful that the old wounds of our past will heal, that we can assume a new and a fresh start, that the world will be a better and brighter place… if not for us, then at least for our children, the icons of innocence and hope. But this belies the experiences of our own sordid history as humanity and as individual humans. Is our redemption progressive? Does anything ever change? Are our cries for salvation heard?

Henri Nouwen writes about this in his last book, Can You Drink the Cup?, scripted during his final years as minister at l’Arche Daybreak, a community of those with intellectual disabilities:

There is Tracy, completely paralyzed, but with a bright mind, always struggling to find ways to express her feelings and thoughts. There is Susanne, not only mentally disabled but also regularly battered by inner voices that she cannot control. There is Loretta, whose disability causes her to feel unwanted by family and friends and whose search for affection and affirmation throws her into moments of deep despair and depression. There are David, Francis, Patrick, Janice, Carol, Gordie, George, Patsy… each of them with a cup full of sorrow…

And for me things are not very different. After ten years of living with people with mental disabilities and their assistants, I have become deeply aware of my own sorrow-filled heart. There was a time when I said: “Next year I will finally have it together,” or “When I grow more mature these moments of inner darkness will go,” or “Age will diminish my emotional needs.” But now I know that my sorrows are mine and will not leave me. In fact I know they are very old and very deep sorrows, and that no amount of positive thinking or optimism will make them less. The adolescent struggle to find someone to love me is still there; unfulfilled needs for affirmation as a young adult remain alive in me. The deaths of my mother and many family members and friends during my later years cause me continual grief. Beyond all that, I experience deep sorrow that I have not become who I wanted to be, and that the God to whom I have prayed so much has not given me what I have most desired…

Whose cup is this? It is our cup, the cup of human suffering. For each of us our sorrows are deeply personal. For all of us our sorrows, too, are universal… Jesus, the man of sorrows, and we, the people of sorrow, hang there between heaven and earth, crying out, “God, our God, why have you forsaken us?”…

In his immense loneliness, he fell on his face and cried out: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus couldn’t face it. Too much pain to hold, too much suffering to embrace, too much agony to live through. He didn’t feel he could drink that cup filled to the brim with sorrows.

Why then could he still say yes? I can’t fully answer that question, except to say that beyond all the abandonment experienced in body and mind Jesus still had a spiritual bond with the one he called Abba. He possessed a trust beyond betrayal, a surrender beyond despair, a love beyond all fears. This intimacy beyond all human intimacies made it possible for Jesus to allow the request to let the cup pass him by become a prayer directed to the one who had called him “My Beloved.” Notwithstanding his anguish, that bond of love had not been broken. It couldn’t be felt in the body, nor thought through in the mind. But it was there, beyond all feelings and thoughts, and it maintained the communion underneath all disruptions. It was that spiritual sinew, that intimate communion with his Father, that made him hold on to the cup and pray: “My Father, let it be as you, not I, would have it” (Matthew 26:39).

Jesus didn’t throw the cup away in despair. No, he kept it in his hands, willing to drink it to the dregs. This was not a show of willpower, staunch determination, or great heroism. This was a deep spiritual yes to Abba, the lover of his wounded heart…

Our culture tends towards an inflexible sense of optimism and humanism. We are convinced that true joy and human actualization must come through the eradication of pain, suffering, and sorrow. It comes as little surprise then that we hide away the sick and suffering in hospitals and mental institutions and ghettoes, or that conversations about suffering are branded as cynical and faux pas (unless they revolve around the trivial). It is only logical that our perspective on hope is sentimental and, when brutally challenged by events like Newtown or other corruptions of innocence, easily susceptible to cynicism and despair.

In the person of Jesus Christ, whose entrance into the world was humble and threatened by scandal and violence, we are reminded that hope must be divine. It must derive itself from the external, the invisible, and the eternal if it is to pose any help to our intractable, superficial, and fickle humanity. It cannot be the mere absence or abolition of suffering; it must engage it, overcome it, transform it. It does not begin from a position of strength or intimidation; it starts with weakness so that it might express itself in desire and, through satisfaction, bring joy. It has no grounding in idealism, theory, or abstraction; it instead comes from the closeness, the sweetness, and the affection of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of all we hope for and desire.

It is this recognition of Christ’s presence in the hardness of life that brings us liberty and enables us to hope freely and challenge the darkness of cynicism, unburdened by the restrictions of sentimentality and its incongruity with reality. We can live and thrive in the darkest corners of the hospitals, nursing homes, mental institutions, funeral homes, labor camps, and ghettoes simply because Jesus says he lives and thrives there as well.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” — Jesus (Matthew 25)

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. — Romans 8

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. — Philippians 3

Genocide, massacre, poverty, disappointment, crucifixion, famine, nakedness, death, or sword; together with Christ, with the fellowship of suffering and the drinking of its cup to its dregs, we shall have our overcoming. Somehow, we shall attain.

Happy New Year.

Part 2: On Hope

Displacement: An Introduction

True to form, there was a new group of people sitting around the dining room table, which had only gotten more chipped and rickety in the past few months. Again we came from very different backgrounds, but this group was particularly unique in that most were from out of town: people who had also chosen to move into the “inner city” of their communities and share their stories & experiences. Also present was X, who had recovered from his hoarseness and was back to his peppy, sassy self. Or at least, nearly so.  “Man, when I first met D,” he said, gesturing to me, “I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’, and someone said, ‘He’s a doctor,’ and I said, ‘No way man! Are you kidding me?’ and so I asked you, ‘Are you a doctor?’ and you said, ‘Yes.’ and I was like, ‘Whaaaaaat? What’s a doctor doing here?’” He paused, and then in a surprisingly serious tone said, “All you guys in this house, you are like my brothers.”

I hesitate a lot in writing this, mainly because I fear appearing as if I am tooting my own horn and praising myself. I am a very new neighbor, still very shy and still very paranoid and fearful about the newness of the world around me. I continue to hide behind and learn from my intrepid roommate, whose daily courage and savoir-faire continues to teach me how to live, whose actions of neighborly love towards X have far exceeded my own in critical timing and influence. But I describe this moment to introduce one of the first true and genuine expressions of acceptance into this neighborhood, which has taken nearly four months to happen.

Over the next few posts, some of the other people sitting around the table that night will share their stories as “guest authors” here. All of them have gone through their own journeys of displacement, described as Henri Nouwen so aptly put it:

The paradox of the Christian community is that people are gathered together in voluntary displacement. The togetherness of those who form a Christian community is a being-gathered-in-displacement. According to Webster’s dictionary, displacement means, to move or to shift from the ordinary or proper place. This becomes a telling definition when we realize the extent to which we are preoccupied with adapting ourselves to the prevalent norms and values of our millieu. We want to be ordinary and proper people who live ordinary and proper lives… This is quite understandable since the ordinary and proper behavior that gives shape to an ordinary and proper life offers us the comforting illusion that things are under control and that everything extraordinary and improper can be kept outside the walls of our self-created fortress.

The call to community as we hear it from our Lord is the call to move away from the ordinary and proper places. Leave your father and mother. Let the dead bury the dead. Keep your hand on the plow and do not look back. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor and come follow me. The Gospels confront us with this persistent voice inviting us to move from where it is comfortable, from where we want to stay, from where we feel at home.

Why is this so central? It is central because in voluntary displacement, we cast off the illusion of “having it together” and thus begin to experience our true condition, which is that we, like everyone else, are pilgrims on the way, sinners in need of grace. Through voluntary displacement, we counteract the tendency to become settled in a false comfort and to forget the fundamentally unsettled position that we share with all people. Voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings…

In voluntary displacement community is formed, deepened, and strengthened. In voluntary displacement we discover each other as members of the same human family with whom we can share our joys and sorrows. Each time we want to move back to what is ordinary and proper, each time we yearn to be settled and feel at home, we erect walls between ourselves and others, undermine community, and reduce compassion to the soft part of an essentially competitive life. — Henri Nouwen, Compassion

Displacement: An Introduction