One of the most common afflictions in nursing homes is deafness. Sometimes the most severely afflicted are not in beds, but at the side of them, usually wearing lab coats and stethoscopes. They’re the healers, responsible for making the inhabitants of those beds—and other patients operating wheelchairs and walkers—a bit more comfortable and less fearful. The most effective method for achieving those outcomes isn’t always found in the medical arts but in the divine art of listening. Therein lies the nature of many physicians’ deafness. It’s hard to hear much of anything when you’re only listening to yourself.
The frailties of all humans are well documented in a new book titled “Being Mortal,” written by Atul Gawande, a physician and surgeon who tells us what he learned through his research of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Dr. Gawande’s research was driven not only by the fears expressed by his patients and friends, but within his own family. He tells of his eye opening efforts to help his terminally ill father, also a physician, make the most graceful journey through the “best practices” of modern medicine to his ultimate exit. All along that journey, he found practitioners willing to dispense treatment advice without hearing what patients said was causing their greatest suffering: fear.
“If being human is to be limited, then the role of caring professions and institutions—from surgeons to nursing homes—ought to be aiding people in their struggle with those limits,” Gawande writes. “Sometimes we can offer a cure, sometimes only a salve, sometimes not even that. But whatever we can offer, our interventions, and the risks and sacrifices they entail, are justified only if they serve the larger aims of a person’s life. When we forget that, the suffering we inflict can be barbaric.”
Fair disclosure, Dr. Gawande is a Hindu, and although he doesn’t personally buy into his faith’s ritual of scattering his father’s ashes on the Ganges River, as the eldest son, he played his role. In so doing, he helped heal his mother and sister. And as he writes, “although I didn’t feel my dad was anywhere in that cup and a half of gray, powdery ash, I felt that we’d connected him to something far bigger than ourselves.”
This Sunday’s mass readings offer a cure for that occupational hazard Dr. Gawande details so effectively. All three passages give the reader a lesson in empathy, which is a necessary element in any treatment for fear. In our first reading (Is 35:4-7a), Isaiah offers a message from our creator, who knows the secrets behind everything that makes us tremble.
“Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared.”
Our gospel reading (Mk 7:31-37) illustrates the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise, in the person of Jesus Christ. Throughout the gospels, Jesus cured many suffering from blindness, seizures, leprosy, paralysis, deafness, death—and the culmination of all of them, fear. Imagine the fear a deaf or blind person must have had in those times, when their affliction not only made independence impossible, but it made those on whom you had to depend less accommodating because illness put you in a lower class. In fact, certain illnesses were often seen as a punishment from God. In this Sunday’s reading from Mark, some sympathetic and faithful souls bring a deaf person to Jesus, in the hope that he could dispense another miraculous cure. Jesus took his patient away from the crowd to give him a private consultation.
“He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” — And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
As in all his miracles, Jesus designed them to be more than just a treatment for symptoms. They were a means to a cure for our mortality. They were done as much for the witnesses as for his patients. His disciples, the authors of the New Testament, made us all witnesses, and in so doing, wrote prescriptions to bring about our cure. Our second reading from James (Jas 2:1-5) is one of those prescriptions:
“If a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? … Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?”
Our faith in that inheritance is the cure for our fear of mortality. Our inheritance is the cure for mortality itself.