Grasping the Dichotomy

I remember clearly how I countered atheists as a child,

"I would rather be wrong on the side of faith."

Life sometimes feels reduced to a risk-benefit ratio. Children grow at astonishing rates, far quicker than my aging parental intellect can adjust. The times are changing. Taboos are on pyres of social media before our own eyes. As in generations past, what was dangerous is not only cool, but a political stance, an identity defensible: our children mount heights both indefinable, ineffable, but conscious, decided, strong. They are the new warriors on the edges of social norms. Challenging ideologies and forging paths through a wilderness all their own. Yet I cannot but see them as the college men placing daisies in rifle barrels in the 1960's, my father's generation growing beards in defiance of gender norms in the 1970's, myself growing up sometime shamefully, sometime shamelessly dyke in the 1990's.

I am softened by the Catholic hospital I work at. The humanity and humility of people of faith who surround me astounds and ashames me. I am by definition a fence-sitter in faith: I cannot make myself plant a foot on either side of the fence. My empathy needs bolstering after years of being on the fringes, my seat amongst the outcasts. I carry my identify carefully and stand watch as my children (rebels and pioneers) blaze new trails, yet the priests and sisters who walk an old, established road that has fallen into disregard join them as rebels and pioneers while wielding tried and trusted tools to reach the hurting and restless of this world.

You say I'm stubborn and I never give in
You say I'm selfish, and I agree with you on that
I say we've only known each a year
You say, "I've known you longer, my dear."

You're so provocative, I'm so conservative,
You're so adventurous, I'm so very cautious,

Walking with each other,
think we'd never match at all,
but we do.
(My Same ~Adele, 19)

I look around at a house of mirrors. Faith has always been dichotomous to me: heaven and hell, righteous and sinful, lightness and dark. I remember a quote I loved long ago:

Muses of the gray, beyond your binary definitions, my children and I still adrift on our raft together, and now we gather souls - my wife, stepfamily, friends... trying to live life outside the margins but looking for other outliers. Longing for community, even when we have accustomed ourselves to being outsiders.

I feel the pull of the universe. The need to be right on the side of what is truly right. A song by a favorite bluegrass gospel family band haunts me. I wonder if I can again master the idea that God's hand is unchanging, true...but loving, accepting of difference, uncertainty. Master the dichotomy. I ponder how we all start out so sure of our intuition, fighting for the things we simply know as true, yet as we age, wisdom adds questions, not answers. Survivors and embracers of dichotomy. We are all on this journey, spinning through the stars, marking our short years in evolutions around a dying sun. Of the stars, embracing darkness in light, light in darkness.

Believers. Doubters.

Perhaps we all hold an eternal thread and tug in tension with all of humanity. The pull between knowledge and knowledge of limitations. Love and hate. War and peace. All a part of the dichotomous universe that cradles us in our unknowing. Each of us earth-shattering and brilliant, dull and muted by the mundane of our reality.

Time is filled with swift transition,
Naught of earth unmoved can stand,
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God's unchanging hand.
(Hold to God's Unchanging Hand, The Franz Family, Sorrow and Wisdom)

I reach into the dark, I struggle for faith. Struggle for vision that Christ is Love, that God, deity by whatever name known...that it is love that wins in the end. That my children and I can be loved with abandon here... and eternally.

Why being humanist means being a lover

Faith has served a purpose in my life. It provided resilience in the face of some of the gravest difficulties I'll ever face. It taught me to question, debate, and defend my ideas and dreams. It taught me the value of believing I am here for a purpose, that there was a metaphysical something that could see my potential in all my flawed humanity.

Because of the physical reality to which human knowledge is constrained at this point in history, it is hard for me to comprehend that something can come from nothing. All matter comes from other matter - there is nothing spontaneous about the development of our observable universe. Where did we come from? Were we created, either in a fully functional state as posited by the legends of the Bible, or as embryonic chemicals stored for eons in the stars and released by an explosion that transformed primordial soup into an evolving universe with an ever-changing genetic and phenotype landscape of mesmerizing, if possibly impermanent, beauty? Is it possible to live agnostic, accepting ambiguity, the I don't know answers to our deepest questions?

Perhaps what I conceived of as divine is actually human: I have a unique potential that serves me well as a professor - to see the hidden beauty and potential in the living, breathing miracles who cross the threshold of my office. I see the purpose concealed there, too. Perhaps this is love. To believe in people, to trust their journey and process, to have confidence in our ability to shape a future world in which respect defines us more than differences do.

After a long hiatus

The urge to write, so strong my fingers tap, eyelids flickering, as I try to sleep - it hasn't kept me awake for almost a year now. The creative fire burns brightest in my soul when the stress of life is overwhelming. When things go smoothly, I don't have to burst at the seams with words and images, I don't have to hunger and thirst for beauty like food, or air. What is that urge, that we must birth something from within to render significance to the events that are shaping us? Is it wielding control over the very things we can not control? As if by constructing our own narrative, we might dull our own pain, blunt our own experience. Is it the drive to share or at the very least, shine a light on the dim and lonely path for the next poor soul who stumbles down it?

Choices and ideas flow out before me like a waterfall of intersections. In the chaos, I lose clarity, the end goal is lost in the mist at the horizon. I know what I want. I want to love and be loved, to be free to do that in the way I need to do it. I'm not here to argue what made me this way, or even whether it's right or wrong, generally speaking. I just want to be free to love and be loved.

Thoughts from the bedside after a long night shift

My mother has bad feet. This is because she rarely gets off them. And so I sit - to chart, to tie my children's shoes, to visit with a patient. I've learned that sitting - the actual sitting part is key - with a patient is often the most therapeutic intervention I can offer in a 12 hour shift. When I enter the room, and I see a damp cheek, or glistening eyes; sense the reticence in the air as the person in that bed tries to hold themselves together while you measure vital signs and trade small talk. I'm not a fan of small talk, and measurements tell me much less about that person's health sometimes than a good chat can. I pull up the hard hospital chair, pull it close, and often reach for my patient's hand.

Last night, a stoic Scandinavian spent 10 minutes talking about the weather, her grandchildren, and her favorite card game before her eyes moistened and we got down to business talking about her looming cancer work-up. We cried together, her apologizing for taking my time with her worries, and I lamenting that I could do nothing more for her than accompany her in this pain. In that moment was a bit of the "silver lining" to my own cancer battle: I can say to that patient, "I have been in this space you're in. I know how difficult it is to want answers and find none. I know what it is like the first time you stare your death in the face." It really sucks that one of the main reasons I can figure for my own suffering is that it allows me to deeply empathize with patients going through similar trials! I wish I could say this to a few students I helped through hard times during nursing school - someday you will be glad you went through this, if only for a brief moment. It redeems some of that pain you've gone through when you can ease the pain of someone else because of it.

Back at the station, I was charting furiously and listening just as intently. I hear it all the time - this patient really should take better care of themselves. That patient should never have let it get that bad. Why is this patient so filthy? Why is that patient so addicted? The truth is, caregivers are as human as their patients, and cleanliness and good manners will get you gold stars in the hospital halls, too. If you haven't suffered much, it's hard to imagine not being able to wash your own feet, shave your own legs, not to mention those poor souls who can no longer clean themselves after toileting. Yet very few of those patients are dirty because they want to be. Whether they are hampered by more visible impairments like limited mobility, weakness, and disease, or the invisible tethers of mental illness, chronic pain and fatigue, they did not obstinately refuse to bathe. No homeless person set out to be so. I've never met an uninsured patient on state benefits and food stamps who planned that out while they were in high school. Why do we have expectations of others, even when they're ill?

Nurses, caregivers of all kinds, pull up a chair, take time to know the person you are caring for this shift. Not the diagnosis, lab values you are watching for, or med that hasn't come up from pharmacy. There is a person lying there suffering - vibrant once, with passions and fears, all kinds of adventures to tell you of, things they regret they may be pondering right this minute. Those moments spent just talking have become the most treasured of my career.

And if you ever have to go the hospital, take your grandma's advice and ALWAYS put on a clean pair of underwear!