Most souls are searching for peace, but relatively few find it. To suggest a solution in brief anecdotes might trivialize the problem and sound cliché. What impresses me—what changes me—is the realization that so many people are in so much pain. Pain, it seems, is the lowest common denominator in humanity. Pain, more than anything else, makes us all alike. What tears us apart is the naïve arrogance of thinking our own situation—our own brand of pain—is somehow different, somehow more important than someone else's.
Pain is what I see so often in ED patients. I've cared for alcoholics, workaholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, and sex addicts. I've taken care of abusers and the victims of abuse, and the parents, children, and siblings of each. I often wonder about the pain that afflicts us all, that makes us one. Sometimes it's nothing more or less than a spiritual homesickness, a gnawing spiritual hunger for the divine glory we once enjoyed. Sometimes, of course, it is much more. Sometimes it's a frank and deep-seated depression requiring expert medical intervention. But when it is spiritual loneliness and we see that longing in one another, the cure becomes obvious.
After 20 years in the ED, I sat with a tearful young man who admitted that he just didn't know how to deal with the pain any longer. The first anniversary of his brother's untimely death had just passed. The grief interfered with his work, his relationships, and his ability to function. He had nowhere to go and no one to help him. He felt as though no one could understand. He felt absolutely alone.
I knew little of the young man's life and nothing of his religious background. I knew, however, that he was in pain. I had an inkling of what he needed. His whole countenance changed when he heard me say, “I remember how I felt when my brother died.” As I shared a few simple thoughts and feelings, his tears stopped, his back straightened, and his shoulders squared, as though an unseen physical burden was being lifted. I hadn't taken his problem away. I couldn't do that. All I did was offer a little perspective and the realization that he was not as alone as he thought. As I spoke, hope returned to his face and confidence to his eyes.
I hadn't learned such treatment in medical school. I learned it from the souls who wandered in and out of my life. I ordered no labs or x-rays. He needed no medication. All he needed was someone who cared. The fact that I could speak from experience helped, but the common thread was pain and the common cure compassion. In that way, to the extent we are willing, we can all heal one another.
The mist of darkness and the pains of life are inevitable. They are on the path we all must tread. Trying to avoid them through drugs, alcohol, sexual exploitation, or any number of other destructive behaviors only takes us away from the ultimate happiness we truly desire and the rewards that await an authentic life. All the distractions and substitutes are temporary. Love and empathy are real and eternal.
Dr. O'Driscollhas been an emergency physician in a Level I trauma center for 25 years, including eight years as a department chair. He is the author of numerous works in theology, ancient scripture, biology, history, medical science, and medical administration. His latest book, Not Yet, is about lessons learned in the ED and from his numerous shared-death experiences. It won Utah's 2018 Best of State Award. More information about it can be found atjeffodriscoll.com.Copyright © 2019 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.