Suffering and the vocation of medicine
by Ken Myers
“It is the burden of those who care for the suffering to know how to teach the suffering that they are not thereby excluded from the human community. In this sense medicine’s primary role is to bind the suffering and the nonsuffering into the same community. Unfortunately, medicine is used too often to guard us from those who suffer. . . .
“[T]he physician, and others concerned with our illness, are called to be present during times of great pain and tragedy. Indeed physicians, because of their moral commitments, have the privilege and the burden to be with us when we are most vulnerable. The physician learns our deepest fears and our profoundest hopes. As patients, that is also why so often we fear the physician, because she/he may know us better than we know ourselves.
“[M]edicine is first of all pledged to be nothing more than a human presence in the face of suffering. . . .
“To learn how to be present in that way we need examples — that is, a people who have so learned to embody such a presence in their lives that it has become the marrow of their habits. The church at least claims to be such a community, as it is a group of people called out by a God who, we believe, is always present to us, both in our sin and our faithfulness. Because of God’s faithfulness we are supposed to be a people who have learned how to be faithful to one another by our willingness to be present, with all our vulnerabilities, to one another. For what does our God require of us other than our unfailing presence in the midst of the world's sin and pain? . . .
“Thus medicine needs the church not to supply a foundation for its moral commitments, but rather as a resource of the habits and practices necessary to sustain the care of those in pain over the long haul. For it is no easy matter to be with the ill, especially when we cannot do much for them other than simply be present. Our very helplessness too often turns to hate, both toward the one in pain and ourselves, as we despise them for reminding us of our helplessness. Only when we remember that our presence is our doing, when sitting on the ground seven days saying nothing is what we can do, can we be saved from our fevered and hopeless attempt to control others' and our own existence. Of course to believe that such presence is what we can and should do entails a belief in a presence in and beyond this world. And it is certainly true many today no longer believe in or experience such a presence. If that is the case, then I do wonder if medicine as an activity of presence is possible in a world without God.”
— from Stanley Hauerwas, “Reflections on Suffering, Death, and Medicine,” in Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (University of Notre Dame Press, 1986)