I went to medical school. This single fact is simultaneously the most beautiful, awful, and confusing of my life. And that analysis is the stuff of other posts. Suffice to say at this time, that both the experience and the reality of that education has great meaning and power –not all of it good– and much of it not obviously available to me, someone who, decided not to be a doctor.
But I simply mentioned that so I could explain the quote above. One of my favorites and, perhaps surprisingly, from the pages of a humorous fantasy series.
Physicians in training take gross anatomy. It is, in most schools, a first year first semester course. There are numerous reasons for this, and plenty of MDs have sold an essay, a book, or a radio serial on the experience, but the basics are this. Medicine is about the human body. Aside from very attentive ownership of your own body, or maybe those first years of caring for a child, you can’t know the body more intimately than dissecting it. The whole thing. Inside and out. Thus the indoctrination to a common language, a common experience and a common foundational knowledge begins in this course. It is also intense, held for multiple hours daily, and completed as a small group –the team on my cadaver was a group of four. Nothing bonds like a shared emotional experience.
School leadership anticipated the shock, discomfort, and strangeness of being asked to take (for all intents and purposes) kitchen and carpentry tools to something as sacredly held as a human body. There were some attempts made to soften the initiation: we were asked to explore our fears about it prior to enrollment in words and drawings. We were toured down to the gross lab two or more times before we met our own body, to get a look at the space, to get to know, and ignore, the smell. And for all this, cavalier and naive as I was at that age, not only did I disregard their concerns, I denied any of the emotion I was feeling, except for one act. Every day I called a friend of mine from graduate school and we argued about faith.
I am not a particularly religious person. I always opt for the soft-pedaled denial, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” My personal beliefs seem fluffy to me. Well-intentioned and vague, because I believe in and treasure both faith and Faith. Yet my objection to Religion (capital R) is rather adamant. I believe that organized religion is fundamentally divisive and thus runs counter to its own lessons of inclusivity and love for all. I find something that internally contradictory hard to swallow and so I do not subscribe to any Religion, no matter how appealing the trappings of community, tradition, and common language are. The young man I argued with was a deep, if only-if-provoked, God-denier. Yet he started it by not being able to explain why he would not donate his body to science.
I did not understand why, if he did not believe in any spiritual aspect of the human body or reality, he would object to the dismantling of a fully physical inanimate object that once was ‘his’ after it was only a shell. I’m not saying you must have faith (or not) to donate your body, but it seems to me that if you think death is nothing it shouldn’t matter what someone else does with your nothing. I also argued that he did have faith if he was alive and believed that anything might happen the next day, say the sun rising. Because I believe that faith is that simple. It is in fact the ability to take anything for granted. I no longer recall his counter argument, but we went probably one hundred rounds or what it meant to ‘believe’ (my word) in the nature of the universe. No one ever one that argument, our friendship trickled to a thin ignorable gossamer filament. I reached out and reconnected it briefly last spring, but we have both grown into other lives and our relevance to each other is dim.
I do not write about this to mourn the friendship, or revisit my deluded fugue state of the first year of medical school. I reflect on this anecdote from my life because it sparkles and resonates for me, the way the quote above does.
Jim Butcher is a fantasy novelist known for the Codex Alera and Harry Dresden series. The quote is from the latter, the eighth book in the series titled Proven Guilty. Mr. Butcher’s writing has improved enormously since his first works. His later books reveal more literary sophistication and, much to my pleasure, a skilled hand at interweaving consideration of everyday philosophy and morality. The moments get writ large as Dresden is a larger than life character and these are fantasy novels involving magic and absurdly complicated and dangerous situations. But when Dresden gets introspective it is about the small but daily things like, being true to yourself, being honest, doing unto others, facing your mistakes, living with dignity, integrity and purpose. For all that our protagonist always does what he believes to be the right thing, he often feels that he has failed and that he is not particularly welcome in any Holy space, that God, at best, ignores or humors him and at worst…Harry Dresden also has respect and wonder for his dear friend’s Faith (and Faith). He seems to think achieving belief in something more or less beneficent, omnipresent and well-intentioned is something to aspire to.
I think of myself as someone who has faith, and I think of consistent faith as something to spire to, because I abandon it at times. I’m not sure exactly why I think it’s so necessary but I am satisfied, on the days that I can’t explain it well, with a simple shrug and a ‘Why not?’ Why not believe that there will be a resolution that is positive for you? I have no personal need for purpose. There doesn’t need to be a reason, but why not believe that whatever it is, it will all be okay. On the days when I can’t do that I think of this quote and start there, trusting that one day I will have faith. and when I can’t even do that (or even when I can) I give myself over to the power of friendship, momentary or life-long. Both came to me when I was too dumb and numb so see my own long slow-motion emotional wreck. And they pulled me through even when I was not wise or aware enough to express my belief in them. I can easily have faith in something so consistently present and freely given.