The God Complex : Academic Medicine

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Teaching and Learning Moments

The God Complex

Hammer, Rachel

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31825359be
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Once, in medical school, a professor taught me about God. Ten of us medical students stormed into a discussion group like the angry townsfolk in Gary, Indiana, ready to tar and feather the Music Man for selling us dead secrets, for promising to teach and lead us well. The topic that day was professionalism. We had been asked to write reflective essays on physician misconduct. I wrote mine, with humor, about a grumpy surgeon I shadowed who screamed expletives, threw sharps at nurses, and defamed a resident for tying his knots “worse than Helen Keller.” In my essay, I wrote him off, a caricature of a despicable being, too “other” to pity.

Dr. D., our discussion group facilitator who is also a rabbi, greeted us with shy smiles as we arrived. His grin looked like something that a child might scrawl in crayon—innocent, thin, and wide, stretching past his cheek lines a little. Rather than exude the stern paternalism of an old doctor, he was more like a father to whom you might actually go with a problem.

“I’m gonna talk to you today about God,” he said with a wide frog smile.

He said God. I waited for him to make all the usual disclaimers that preempt all the usual offenses. He had no such caveats. I sat up straighter and felt my heart beating.

“Now, who knows what this is?” he croaked while squeaking a Vis-A-Vis marker against the whiteboard.

“Hebrew,” some smarty answered.

“Yeah … Anyone know what it says?” Silence.

Our quiet-voiced elder gave a soft chuckle and turned back to the board. “It means,” he wrote, “I am who I am.” He waited.

“As it goes in Exodus, God, or Yahweh, appears to Moses from a bush on fire. Curiously enough, the bush doesn’t burn up.”

That’s me, I thought. So often I feel like my hair is on fire. I’ve also seen my classmates consumed in the flame, in the fervor of this godlike work. But the heat that should refine us burns us out.

“Moses doubts he can do the task the Lord has for him, but God,” Dr. D. continued, touching the words on the board, “tells him to trust that ‘I am who I am.’ Interestingly, some have translated these words with the present participle conjugation: I am becoming who I am becoming. Now, we are all created in the likeness of God, imago dei, and if God describes Himself with words implying a process, a continuing fulfillment of a promise, now and tomorrow, so too are you becoming what you are becoming.

“I say all this because I want to take off some of the pressure. In two years, when you get your degree, it’s not like you will be a finished product. A doctor. Done. No, trust what I say—you are always becoming a doctor.”

We then discussed how the antihero physicians in our essays whom we wanted to rake across hot coals were in the process of becoming. It made their misadventures seem more human, more like the mistakes that we all make, in spite of our good intentions.

In his poem The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot described the present, the quick, the now, as “a lifetime burning in every moment.” There, he also revealed, “Humility is endless.” The evil in medicine is often blamed on the so- called God complex. But what if the God complex didn’t imply authority and omnipotence? but, rather, humility, being a work in progress—always becoming—as Dr. D. said, in the image of God. That we could be burning and not burned.

Author’s Note: The name in this essay has been changed to protect the identity of the physician.

© 2012 Association of American Medical Colleges