It was stunning news. I listened with disbelief as my colleague described how a patient of ours, in whom we had uncovered a host of serious diseases over a few years, was now newly diagnosed withÂ cancer after an incidental scan. In addition, his social supports had been eroded and I thought about what it would be like for him to die from aÂ vicious terminal diseaseÂ whileÂ alone and homeless. He would not be the first patient for me to watch die in such aÂ way.
To be a physician is, in many ways, an exercise in futility. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes it as a â€œduty dance with death,â€ and how can one argue otherwise? It is not as if we fail some of the time or even most of the time. Every human suffers. Every human dies. If we define the success of a physician as the alleviation of suffering and the postponement of death, then every physician, though occasionally and transiently triumphant, is ultimately a failure.
Such an ecclesiastical view is not attractive and certainly not a great advertisement for the profession. But, as jarring and morose as it is, it honestly exposes ourÂ metrics forÂ success. For what â€œsuccessâ€ in life is truly significant and eternal if life itself is so easily frayed and terminated?
I once read an article about â€œEmerging Adulthoodâ€, a proposedÂ new stage of human development following adolescence in which young adults that are still forming their identities (and often areÂ still students, unmarried, and childless) hesitate orÂ delay making life-changing choices because they fear both failure and the suboptimal. They mayÂ hesitateÂ to commit, whether it be toÂ aÂ major career decision or to a relationship, because they cannot envision “it” lasting for theÂ rest of their lives.
And why not? If life occurs but once, if youth and vigor can only be expended on a finite number of pursuits,Â would it beÂ so wrong to buy into the mantra of YOLO? If you only live once, why not hold out until you make it the best run possible? Why not savorÂ every opportunity, maximize every liberty, andÂ foster every gift? Is this not what “being a good steward” means?
But the phenomenon of Emerging Adulthood exposes anÂ operationalÂ paralysis inÂ our mostÂ vibrant andÂ earnest demographic,Â and in itÂ we see hints of howÂ destructive the lie of utilitarianism can be. If success inÂ life is distilled into aÂ summation of our achievements (whether financial, relational, or spiritual), what happens when we do not succeed in every way?Â Do we act as if failure is tantamount to sin? Here, perhaps, the failure of physicians can bring some wisdom.
The chapter â€œFailing Faithfullyâ€, written by Christian physician and ethicist Dr. Justin Denholm, opens with this observation and criticism:
â€œYou are a person with many gifts and a calling for your life. You have the opportunity to succeed in your chosen field and to glorify God with your influence. Your competence and intelligence will attract people to faith in Christ. If you were to turn away from using your skills and abilities to further your career, you would not be a faithful steward of what you have been given.â€
I donâ€™t know how you felt as you read these words. Iâ€™m convinced, though, that what youâ€™ve just read is perhaps the most dangerous paragraph Iâ€™ve ever written. Every word in it has been said to me and many others; maybe youâ€™ve heard these things as well. The more I reflect on them, though, the more convinced I am that they are dangerous words with potentially disastrous consequences–the more so because they contain some element of truth.
This series of reflections and exchanges with Dr. Denholm will exploreÂ what it means to fail in a world that idolizes success, and toÂ recognize thatÂ the true values of calling, gifting, and ambition reside not in what we can achieve, but in the object of our desire and affection: Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, resurrected, and glorified.
After all, what other message matters?
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. – 2 Corinthians 2:14-17
Denholm, Justin. â€œFailing Faithfully: Christian Reflections on Ambition, Influence and Success.â€Â Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 95-108.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or The Childrenâ€™s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dell, 1991
Wikipedia Contributors. â€œEmerging Adulthood.â€ Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_adulthood_and_early_adulthood
About the author:
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 decidÂedly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disneyâ€™s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.