Beyond Ordinary and Proper

“There is something wrong with you,” she said, her face twisting in genuine disbelief and horror. “You are crazy.”

I laughed, but comments like these were starting to get to me. At work, I’ve been sharing more and more about what my life in the city is like. By this I mean telling the fun and juicy stories: nearly getting jumped, waking up to gunshots, living next to pedophiles & sex offenders, finding gas leaks and mice in the kitchen. I should have known that focusing on these more dramatic & exotic elements would surprise people, but I was unprepared for the responses. At first they were polite incredulity: “Oh, that’s . . . different.” “That’s noble of you.” “Wow, I could never do that.” “That’s interesting.”

Then, when it began looking like I intended to stay, the comments became forceful and sharp. “You’re just not right in the head.” “You need to get out of there. . . . I am going to drag you out myself.” You’re expendable.” “What’s wrong with you?”

The most hurtful of all these comments:

“The people there deserve it. Why should you live with them?”

I still struggle to answer this last question. Anyone who knows me knows that I am hypercritical when it comes to myself, and working through my motives and heart issues has been a difficult process. I have a vague sense of what I hope to gain through life in community, and I have seen my many biases and prejudices begin to change. But I still have trouble articulating exactly why I am here, even though I am more accustomed and deeply satisfied by this way of life. I used to think that simply sharing my stories would enable others to understand, so I started a blog to describe the experience. Here is one of my first entries on moving into the “inner city”:

…I went ahead and made one of the biggest, strangest, and unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally bold changes of my life. People asked me if I was crazy, warned me about being dramatic or unstable  and expressed skepticism  curiosity  and general bewilderment about my decision  In retrospect,  it was one of the best decisions I have ever made, since each day brings me a new story and hints that the life I once knew was not the life I was made for. It seems almost natural with each passing day I am here, to believe that this is the way we should all live, though I am willing to give it more time to see the truth in that.

What did I do? I moved from a nice, single apartment near the hospital I work at and into a row house in the inner city where my patients live. I moved out of a fully furnished site with laundry and FIOS and easy access to every modern convenience into a shared house and a room like my college dorm except smaller, without air conditioning, and with plenty of cockroaches and a gas leak that’s worse every time it rains. I moved away from neighbors I loved who were fellow physicians in training and into a house on a block where the neighbors shrug and freely confess they deal drugs to “make ends meet”, hold vigils in my back parking lot for gangsters who were shot, and are crazy enough to try my home cooking  I moved away from everything that was comfortable and safe into a world of rumors and sensational reputations and risk.

I thought I was going to write this blog to show off how daring and cavalier I am, but it really is just to share my daily struggle to overcome my fear of small things like the dark. I thought I was going to write about thugs and hoodlums  but there are only honest people, funny people  warm and tragic and open hearted people, understandable people here. I thought I came here to embrace the suffering and the lost, but am finding that it was I who needed a home.

I hope you enjoy the company you find here.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. The Return of the Prodigal Son, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved May 3, 2013]. Original source: Question: Who best represents you (at present)?

Some people really listen to me and try to understand what is so beautiful and tragic about my neighborhood, about life in the city. Some have come out to visit and sit with my roommates and neighbors. In those moments and in them I have great hope and joy. And through them, I have come to realize that the hallmark of Christian and meaningful community is a willingness to become displaced:

It is central because in voluntary displacement, we cast off the illusion of “having it together” and thus begin to experience our true condition  which is that we, like everyone else, are pilgrims on the way, sinners in need of grace. Through voluntary displacement, we counteract the tendency to become settled in a false comfort and to forget the fundamentally unsettled position that we share with all people  Voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings . . .

In voluntary displacement community is formed, deepened  and strengthened  In voluntary displacement we discover each other as members of the same human family with whom we can share our joys and sorrows. Each time we want to move back to what is ordinary and proper, each time we yearn to be settled and feel at home, we erect walls between ourselves and others, undermine community, and reduce compassion to the soft part of an essentially competitive life. — Henri Nouwen, Com­pas­sion

In what ways have you become displaced? How have you been moved away from something ordinary and proper, and how has this deepened your understanding of compassion and what it means to be a follower of Christ?

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David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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