While I was driving my rental car a few days ago in another city, a man passed me on his chopper. He was covered in tattoos and his long hair was blowing wildly in the wind. He looked the very image of freedom, of unrestricted energy. Snug in my safe (boring) Chevy Cavalier, on the way to a meeting, with Mozart on the radio, I didn’t give him another thought. Then I realized something. Practicing medicine has changed me.
Looking back on my youth, I remember a time when motorcycles weren’t as common as now and when tattoos were perceived as things for the fringe of society. In my sheltered, judgmental youth, I would have felt a little afraid of that man. Now, years later, I see the world differently.
I know that man. I’ve treated him over and over. I’ve closed his cuts, listened to his story, given him medicine, tried to help his depression, examined the road-rash from his wrecks, opened his chest, felt his blood, pronounced him dead, remembered him and written about him. Sometimes he was a scoundrel; mostly he was a good guy having a tough time.
I know that man because I know so many men and women. And there are some reasonable generalities, since every human being shares features. Medical school is largely about identifying those commonalities, so that the unique differences of disease and injury can be recognized. We share the same sorts of hearts, pumping similar sorts of blood to assorted analogous organs, all requiring oxygen, carbohydrates and protein.
Our arms and legs are usually arranged in a manner similar to one another and our heads perch solidly on top of our torsos as they should. (Any other arrangement would make motorcycle riding decidedly more hazardous). We humans are remarkably alike, whether you subscribe to a Darwinian origin for man, or the common mind and plan of the Creator.
But there’s more. We’re alike in the wonders of our imaginations and the amazing capacity of our brains. We are similar to one another in our creativity, our sense of wonder, our desire to explore, our deep need for physical affection and emotional connection. We’re alike in our love of families and our desire to be healthy and whole. Subtle variations exist, but these are generally shared traits.
We resemble one another in more ways yet. We’re alike in our vulnerability. Our bones break. We bleed when we are wounded. Our hearts stop with 100% consistency in the end. And beyond the merely physical, we’re alike in our inner brokenness. We’re similar in our collective tendency to view ourselves as unacceptable; to feel ourselves unworthy. We share the wounds of childhood and adulthood. We share a need to be whole, somehow, someday”¦some way.
The great thing about medicine is that it has shown me how very close we are to one another in so many ways. And it has proven to me that there are good people, and people much like me, with every possible appearance. They are investors with suits; they are bikers in leather. They are teen girls in sun-dresses and sandals, and dying old men in cover-alls. The good folks of this nation, and this earth, have no uniform to aid their identification. They lurk in the worst of clothes and best. They hide themselves in every type of career and every imaginable hobby, waiting for the chance to show us their humanity, waiting for the opportunity to show us love, or to receive it.
This is probably a relevant time to remember that. Economic crisis looms, cultures clash within our very borders and the election of a new president promises frustration on the side of the losers. We all want someone to blame; we all want someone to pay, as if we could calculate compensation for such complexities. Many want to punish banks or a political party. They want to punish the rich, or the old, the right or the left.
But wait! Good people are riding choppers past your car! They’re working in landfills. They’re running multi-national corporations making millions of dollars; they’re working at a factory making lots less. They’re in prison. They’re in government. The good people of this world are all around, often unseen.
Ultimately, it won’t be banks or governments, taxes or policies that pull us through the future struggles that loom. It will be the strength of our sameness. I only hope we can recognize that fact before it’s too late.
Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com.