Dead Bodies and Lamentations

What do you do with a dead body in the room?

My first dead patient arrived that way. He was half naked, pupils blown, head bashed in from a car accident in which he was thrown through the windshield. It was my first week on the wards as a medical student and though I had been through enough trauma alerts with the surgical team to know the drill, the brutality of it all still took me by surprise. The trauma bay was chaotic for all of twenty minutes as the team performed what they already knew would be an exercise in futility: chest compressions, central lines, bags of saline, etc. Someone had asked me to get warm blankets so I scurried around retrieving them but primarily tried to stay out of the way. Once the twenty minutes of resuscitation were over, the chief resident called the time of death and everyone simply stopped what they were doing and awkwardly shuffled out of the room. I remember standing there under the bright spotlights alone with the dead body, blankets still warm in my hands, watching as blood suddenly decided to gush out of the man’s skull and onto the tiled floor. I remember staring at the growing puddle and feeling like the most helpless and useless person in the world.

In the years since, I have been in the room with a dead body more times than I can count. I have been the one to warn the family of what was coming, whether they were prepared or willing to hear it or not. I have begged them for permission to stop CPR, to acknowledge the death as final and irreversible. I have had to make the pronouncement of death. I have watched family weep with silent tears and have had them scream at me from down the hall. I have done CPR on babies and adults. I have helped zip up the body bag. Even as I write this, my memory relives the hearing of those noises, faces, voices, lamentations.

Whether I want to or not, whether it is fair or reasonable or not, my job puts me in a position to listen to a wide range of hurt and anger and grief. It has become reflexive to absorb these narratives, in part because it makes me better at my job but also because the plainness of the suffering voice is compelling. That said, some days I come home both thoughtful and irritable, resentful of my role as a dustbin for the sorrows and troubles of others. I grouse and pour myself some seltzer over ice and sort through the emotions of others that have been laid on me.

But in some odd way, I have also come to appreciate such experiences even if I cannot bring myself to be thankful for them. In thinking about that helpless experience of watching blood spill out of a man’s head, of pushing a baby’s chest in perfunctory CPR, of shocking a dead body into convulsions over and over again, I am forced to acknowledge the brutality of death and visualize how easily the sacred becomes desecrated.

I recently heard seminary professor Dr. Soong Chan Rah talk about the Book of Lamentations, how it begins with a funeral dirge for a nation humiliated, raped, and obliterated into exile. He talks about how the book speaks about the dead body in the room, the death of the nation of Israel. It is composed in broken meter, styled to imitate a limp, written from the voices of the beaten and wounded.

How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave…

My eyes are spent with weeping;

my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out to the ground
because of the destruction of the daughter of my people,
because infants and babies faint
in the streets of the city.

They cry to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like a wounded man
in the streets of the city,
as their life is poured out
on their mothers’ bosom.

- Lamentations 1:1; 2:11–12

There has been a lot of talk in the post-election season about “understanding one another” and “coming together” and “moving on.” There has been a lot of wondering about “why can’t we all just get along?”, a question that would seem honest and harmless if not for its implicit favoritism towards the dominant culture.

There are many things to lament, as there are many things that are broken, and this is legitimately true in most shades of American politics. But racism is a particular sort of devastation in our history that merits its own dirge, one that the American church has been too reluctant to sing. Think for a moment about the white nationalist conference in DC and resurgences of the KKK, then think about these words from the book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”:

No historical situation was more challenging than the lynching era, when God the liberator seemed nowhere to be found. “De courts er dis land is not for niggers,” a black man from South Carolina reflected cynically. “It seems to me that when it comes to trouble, de law an’ a nigger is de white man’s sport, an’ justice is a stranger in them precincts, an’ mercy is unknown. An’ de Bible say we must pray for we enemy. Drop down on you’ knee, brothers, an’ pray to God for all de crackers, an’ judges, an’ de courts, an’ solicitors, sheriffs, an’ police in de land.” Whether one was lynched on a tree or in court, the results were the same. “Lord, how come me here,” they sang, “I wish I never was born!” (page 27)

The language of lament has helped me understand what has been so bothersome about the “evangelical” Christian voice in the national politic. We talk about how the church is the cure to American culture without acknowledging its complicity in a long history of corruption and tainted ambition. We talk about our entitlements to freedom without mentioning the offal nature of slavery and oppression. We demand forgiveness and reconciliation without recalling our viciousness of speech and deed. We talk about God’s sovereignty as resurrection without mourning the abused and defiled body of Christ. We have skipped ahead to resurrection songs when the bleeding body is still naked on the stretcher.

What do you do with a dead body in the room?

What can I say for you, to what compare you,
O daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you,
O virgin daughter of Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea;
who can heal you?

Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
that are false and misleading.

All who pass along the way
clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads
at the daughter of Jerusalem:
“Is this the city that was called
the perfection of beauty,
the joy of all the earth?”

- Lamentations 2:13–15

Dead Bodies and Lamentations

Guns, Children, and Suits: that which does not belong

I would rather talk about guns and children than wear a suit. I do not like suits. Whenever I have to dress in anything fancier than casual, I become nervous because I know I am dressing for someone else’s eye. It sounds childish because it is, as an emotionally traumatic holdover from my super-awkward middle school days. I have gotten used to it over time, if only because it has become a daily professional requirement (and because people are too polite to voice their fashion critiques.) I suppose this is part of the appeal of pediatrics, where my little patients don’t care for the white coat or business attire anyways and I can let a goofy smile be the most memorable part of my appearance.

However, this means I feel even more uncomfortable wandering around the legislative district of Washington, D.C., where appearances and impressions seem to mean everything. To me, everyone seems immaculately dressed and my scuffed shoes and worn belt feel out of place among the polished lobbyist briefcases and horn-rimmed hipster eyewear. I feel like that awkward geek all over again, trying to measure up to the popular kids who now wear Hugo Boss instead of Adidas and lunch at a French bistro instead of the pizza parlor.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is trying to help me figure this out, here at the biannual Legislative Conference. There are all these advocates and representatives and staffers trying to teach me the rules of the government game: how to “frame” an issue, how to send clear messages, how to say things in a way that gets those with the authority to make decisions to listen. They also model for me the right way to wear a suit, but this still does not make me feel very comfortable. The sinful side of me feels jealous of their ease and expertise, and it becomes overly fixated on things like image and word choice and fundraising and the fear and love of power, things that make me feel like I am part of a massive popularity contest… one in which I feel sure to lose.

So I made some phone calls yesterday.

I called my friends from the city, people whom I have come to Washington to represent. All of them dedicate their work and lives to kids in the city; all of them live in the so-called inner city itself. I asked them to tell their stories, and here they are:

“Yesterday, I heard gunshots outside the office, the afterschool camp where the kids were coming.”

“This past week, a student… he came up to me excitedly and said, ‘I just saw a shooting! Down the street! People are running!’ I asked him if anyone was hurt, and he said he didn’t know. Then he went back to playing basketball, as if it was something normal, but I know it’s not… it shouldn’t be something that’s just normal. He’s ten years old.”

“I asked the kids to do a watercolor of things that they were afraid of. I didn’t tell them anything else, but they started to paint pictures of guns, and of blood spurting out… they’re in 1st to 5th grade.”

“How many of them have been affected by guns? I can’t think of someone who hasn’t had someone in the family or a friend get shot.”

“Two years ago, I was walking down the street and got robbed at gunpoint. I still get paranoid when walking down the street, and I grew up here.”

“We had a young mother, 19 years old with two kids. One day she picked them up from daycare and took them home… and found a dead body in the backyard, who had been shot. She hasn’t let her kids play in the street since, and it’s been years.”

“The person who taught me to read got shot. He was just sitting in his car…”

“Guns are just a part of these kids lives.”

“There was a 14 year old who used to come to camp; he went ahead and shot his friend over some fight over a girl. Now he’s in jail…”

“The kids are afraid to walk home from the bus, or the park, or out on the street because of guns.”

“One time I heard gunshots just around the corner… I was having to tell kids to get inside because someone’s been shooting a gun down the street. The older guys were standing outside… they’ve seen this play out hundreds of times.”

These stories came easily from people who were far too comfortable telling them. If there was any silence on the phone, it was because I was at a loss for words. And yet, without fail, as I stumbled for appropriate words, my friends would help me close such a casually horrific conversation with this question:

“Can I pray for you?”

I am still struck by this outpouring of grace that seemed so counterintuitive at first. To them, and to me, true power does not come from a gun or a sword or a pen or a suit. It comes from obedience to a simple series of commands: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. If this means we lose our lives that we may find it, then we do so gladly. If it means we speak unpopular truth to overwhelming power, then our feet should only ask for the direction to go. If it means I wear a suit… well, I am wearing it now.

This is the message in my mind for the Senators we will be speaking to today. Join your pediatricians in advocating for our children, that they may be spared from the terrors we have permitted by our collective and willful negligence. Call your Senators and Representatives today to say that you support the message of pediatricians nationwide: that all children should have freedom from the fear of firearms. This is not in support of or opposition to any legislation; this is not an attempt to strip others of Constitutional rights. It is simply a call to let your elected officials know you care about gun safety, that you want firearms to stay out of hands that seek to harm. It only takes several minutes.

I am tired of waking up to gunfire. I am tired of watching my neighborhood live under its crushing terror. I am also tired of wearing suits.

Share this. Call someone. Remember us.

20130430-082539.jpg

Guns, Children, and Suits: that which does not belong

I Voted! / He Votado!

Hi! Fellow urban dweller here, guest blogging for the DISPLACEMENT series. In light of the Prez’s upcoming re-inauguration, here is a reflection on my first voting experience in North Philly, originally written this past election.

I received invites from two bloggers named Dave (one in Delaware, one in California) to write about the location where I live. I’ve been meaning to sit and write, since it’s good therapy. Therefore, I figured this would be an opportunity to kill multiple birds with one stone.

Today, I voted for the first time in my neighbourhood. I walked 6 blocks, about half a mile, at a dimly lamplit 6 p.m. to get to my polling place.

People tell me I shouldn’t walk by myself in the dark in the city, let alone the inner city. People often express concern for my safety, and occasionally express anger about my decision to move to North Philadelphia. One of my rebuttals would be, “Well, it’s not like I’m walking around by myself at night.” Oops.

I walked toward the entrance and was handed a flyer that said, “HOW TO VOTE DEMOCRAT: PUSH #2 STRAIGHT TICKET,” or something like that.

Flashback to 2008 — my family’s first time voting as U.S. citizens. I went to vote with my mom. She was peeved by my Obama t-shirt. At the front of the line, I gave her a hug and said, “Do the right thing, Mama!” She pushed me away and responded with a shameless, “Aiya! Stop campaining in my face! That’s illegal!”

I looked at the flyer, then looked at the woman. SMH. She asked, “Do you know how to vote? I can tell you if you don’t.” It wasn’t clear if she wanted to tell me how to vote (Democrat) or how to use the electronic voting machines (read the instructions on the machine and follow them). 

For a moment I forgot my purpose for living in the community and thought, “Whyyyyeee would I choose to live here if I weren’t a Democrat?!?!” Though my Republican friends get on my nerves sometimes, I was indignant, wondering how someone from their party might feel alienated if they were registered at this election site. I also felt defensive towards her hypothetical assumption that I wouldn’t be able to read how to use the machines, perhaps because I’m Asian.

So, I didn’t end up voting straight ticket, partially out of spite at the flyer, partially because the electronic machine was so easy. T’was definitely less labourious than the bubble sheet I filled out 4 years ago in Michigan, while living the dental school life of constantly filling out bubble sheets to the point of tears.

A few hours later, as I write this, I am annoyed at myself: for being inconsistent between what I say and what I do, for not wanting to be labelled or typecast based on my life decisions or group identities… yet wanting to label myself, and for letting go of my primary identity and prioritizing an identity that I normally don’t prioritize. I think this is what makes it difficult to live in and write about my experience in ‘da hood. I want to discover and articulate generalities about cultural behaviour, because maybe understanding will make me feel more in control. But, I can’t even predict my own thoughts and reactions half the time.

As mentioned above, therapy is needed. Hopefully, if I can keep this writing up, I will be more sane, though perhaps appearing more insane to you, poor reader.

I Voted! / He Votado!

Entitlement

One of the most difficult things I’ve struggled with since moving here has been a sense of entitlement. That word is not one I ever hear from those living here, mainly because it’s never used in a positive context. It is typically in reference to “handouts to the poor” and finds its anchoring in food stamps and other poverty-related imagery, even though the largest entitlement programs in the US are Medicare and Social Security (which merit the name simply because they are guaranteed payouts/benefits from the government, even if they are drawn from money you put in previously through your paycheck). I hear it mainly from politicians these days, people who want you to believe that such handouts are not only unmerited but expected. It is meant to inspire you with a sense of injustice: that there are deserving victims and undeserving freeloaders, there are hardworking benefactors that just need a hand and lazy ingrates who not only feed off the system but feel that the benefit is owed to them. I don’t mean to be politically one-sided, but it is impossible to ignore a statement like Mitt Romney’s, who put it starkly and bluntly:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.… I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

In watching the video, you can hear the disgust that permeates that single word, “entitlement.” It is not a pretty word, mainly because it is not meant to be. For some reason (perhaps many reasons), it is important to distinguish between those who are deserving and who are undeserving, those who have earned a right or entitlement and those who have not.

But this is not what I mean in struggling with entitlement. It is not a problem with “them”; it is a problem with me.

It was difficult to describe at first, these twinges of irritation, cramps in the soul. It would be a missed compliment I had been expecting to receive, perhaps triggered by a generous and sacrificial action on my part that went underrecognized and underappreciated. Or it would be a moment of temptation to slip a reference to my educational pedigree into the conversation, how unusual and awkward I felt in a community “so different from the one I grew up in.” 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.

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. — Revelation 3

The true reality of our human condition is that we are all impoverished, that there is nothing that we deserve or have earned by personal right or vigilance. We are fools to think otherwise. Politics gets it all wrong; it is not that 47% feel entitled, or that 99% are disenfranchised or that 1% hoard the wealth. We are 100% impoverished in demographic, in spirit, and in human condition.

Who will liberate me? How am I freed from this body of death? In Jesus Christ, we find the secret to contentment, the effacement of entitlement. Through the willing and intentional identification with Christ and his suffering, I choose to allow the revelation of the selfish and human-centered desires of my heart and through that twinge of self-righteousness and entitlement, understand the audacity and magnitude of the self-emptying suffering of Jesus Christ.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 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

Entitlement