A good relationship requires proximity. We can diagnose some things over the phone. But we can’t take off a mole, much less get to know a person for who they are, unless we get close to them. While medical technology invades every patient encounter – and often puts distance between us and the patient, we still have the patient-physician relationship that helps us to close that gap. However, there is still a lot of physical distance between us and our patients. Living where you work used to be the norm; now we can live, work, worship, and play in different places without the ties of proximity to hold us together. We now have the freedom to be disconnected from the everyday concerns of our patients – as well as the local history and knowledge of the places where they live. We can discharge our duties as a physician and simply be a cog in the machine.
The only way to counter this is to be present. Physically. And if not physically, then our hearts and minds and eyes and hands and our pain must be there. This brings up vulnerability. Proximity requires vulnerability. You have to expose yourself to the risk of being hurt – something that everyone who has ever invested in a patient-physician relationship knows.
As I have piloted a mental health outreach in my neighbourhood in West Baltimore, USA to deal with the severe emotional issues that make up the day-to-day reality of the inner city, I have had to share in the sufferings of my neighbours, especially within my church. Yet my presence nearby gives me the ability to connect with people that I would not have otherwise and to meet the advocates within the community who need only to be empowered to maximise their impact.
Vulnerability requires faith and love. I’m sure that using the words “love” regarding a patient-physician relationship raises a few eyebrows. However, I don’t speak of love as a mere sentiment, but as a guiding commitment to care for someone appropriately – regardless of the emotional cost.
Why? For me, it’s “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus became a human and moved into the neighbourhood. He suffered on our behalf – because of his enormous love – to transform our human community. Jesus is an important example for us of proximity, vulnerability – and love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” He could say that because he knew that there was a victory accomplished in Jesus that was promised to us.
As a community, we must imitate that willingness to suffer on the behalf of others. When we find our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, failures, and suffering that we experience, we take them to ultimate realities – to God. And even when failures arise, we’re guarded from cynicism and despair because we know that we’re on the near side of that arc of history – and we’re still getting closer to victory.
This is an abridged version of Matthew Loftus’ article. The full text can be seen here
(and here: http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/proximity-vulnerability-faith-love-this.html)