Friday, September 24, 2010

A Fellowship of Failure


It's fair-skies and 48 this morning and the view from my patio penthouse includes the sun trying to reach me through the cottonwoods. Maybe by mid-October they'll feel more generous, but right now they're holding onto their leaves as though the last days of summer depended entirely on them. If they know Wednesday evening saw the Autumnal Equinox, they're not telling.

I was thinking, the other day, about the one thing nearly all of us have in common (aside from being medical students) -- failure. Some, to be sure, come simply as a supplement to their education -- not a bad idea at all, frankly. They’ve yet take their stand in the middle of some dusty street at high noon while spectators scurry for safety and then anxiously peer from windows or peek around corners, waiting for the bad guy (board exams) to go for his gun. But, they're in the minority; most of us have had that experience already, at least once, and the outcome hasn't been pretty.

I suppose this is why we’re inclined to be accepting of one another, why no one sighs impatiently when another student doesn’t correctly answer a professor's question, why hands don't shoot up like a flock of geese startled by sudden movement, eager to show they know what you don’t. Perhaps this is why asking the instructor to repeat a point isn't accompanied by snickers and rolling eyes and why busy hands copy down what their owners also missed the first time around.

I've often wondered, quite truly, what it would be like if a class was almost entirely composed of people like me. Not like me in the sense that everyone has creaky knees (I've known athletes with them in their 20s, by the way, so there) or can't wait for the 9:30 coffee break. Nor people like me who pound the treadmill in the late afternoon hoping to generate sufficient energy to keep the Rack Monster aka Mr. Sandman at bay long enough to spend the evening studying. 
 
I mean people who've had to wrestle with medical school – people like Jacob, who dared wrestle with an angel, holding onto him with all his might and through gritted teeth declaring, "I will absolutely not let you go until you bless me." People who, like Jacob, got the blessing all right, but had to pay for it when the angel dislocated his hip, so that he walked with a limp the rest of his life.

People like that.

Well, now I know. To tell you the truth, it's been refreshing. For one thing, it's delightful seeing the faces of my MD colleagues light up when I've done a little osteopathic manipulation on their cramping wrists after a day of writing like their lives depended on it. They've heard about our little secret, they know us DO types can do things with our hands they never learn, but seeing it up close and personally, they act like any one of us would when a magician pulls a rabbit from a hat and this time you know the magic is real.

More than that, it's good being among persons who’ve seen failure face to face and are determined to not let it define them. Part of this stems from the atmosphere created by our professor who knows from his own experience what it's like to have a dream behave like your nemesis. Medical school was hard for him, too. So was life, growing up on the South Side of Chicago. In his family, new clothes meant a trip to the Goodwill, not Macy's. He told us his story yesterday, holding back none of the unpleasantness, describing how he discovered the Faith that changed his life.

He reminds me of something I wrote in my very first blog post, i.e. he's one beggar sharing with others where he's found bread and then showing them how they can find it for themselves. In so doing, he inspires confidence when things seemed very much in doubt. As you walk in the main entrance, six metal letters are arranged on the counter in front of you, spelling out the word "Believe." Every day, someone on the staff drives home the message that our achievements depend as much on faith in ourselves and each other, as they do hard work. In this fellowship of failure, I suppose you could call it, we're becoming not only better future doctors, but better people. Little did we know.

(Photo copyright 2010 by the author)
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