I heard about this book several years ago when my mother read it for her book club. She liked it a lot and suggested that I might too. Then my good friend Melissa finished it right before I met her in Jerusalem and mentioned it to me again. I read a different Tracy Kidder book, Strength in What Remains, last summer, and it was a powerful, powerful book. Paul Farmer, the subject of Mountains Beyond Mountains, makes minor appearances there as well, so when I constructed my summer reading list this year I knew it was time that I finally got to it. I was certain that I would love it, but I was also certain that it would make me uncomfortable. True on both counts.
Paul Farmer is a Harvard-educated doctor who specializes in infectious disease. While a student, he started a public health clinic in Canage, Haiti, a tiny little portion of one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. He deals with all sorts of infectious diseases, but spends a great deal of his time with TB, HIV, and AIDS. Through his connections in Haiti and in Boston he created an organization called Partners in Health, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., which runs the clinic in Haiti as well as branches in the Boston area and a clinic in Lima, Peru attempting to eradicate MDR-TB. He travels all over the world to consult with other doctors, the World Health Organization, speak at conferences. He is a tenured professor at Harvard. He is on the board for Village Health Works, which sponsors health clinics in Burundi (see Strength in What Remains). He has written several books about infectious disease, poverty, public health, and Haiti. He is one of those people you are amazed by and feel guilty because of. Case in point: while a Harvard medical student he would skip lectures for weeks at a time so he could work in his clinic in Haiti, then fly back to Cambridge for exams. He had grades at the top of his class. Harvard granted him permission to spend half his residency at Brigham and half in Haiti.
It’s an amazing story because he is an amazing man. Margaret Mead said, “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. Indeed, they are the only ones who ever have.” Paul Farmer is certainly an example of this. And I sat there reading and loving what he’s doing but also feeling guilty that I’ve been thinking about a pair of $70 boots I want (What if I sent that money to PIH instead? How much could they do? But every time I want anything for myself do I have to feel guilty about it?). And then I came across this passage:
He [Farmer] went on: “I thought I was the king of empathy for these poor kids, but I I was the king of empathy, why this big shift because of my daughter? It was a failure of empathy, the inability to love other children as much as yours. The thing is, everybody understands that, encourages that, praises you for it. But the hard thing is the other.”
I thought about this for a while, attempting to frame my question delicately. Finally, I just tried to disassociate myself from it: “Some people would say, Where do you get off thinking you’re different from everyone and can love the children of others as much as your own. What would you say to that?”
“Look,” he replied. “All the great religious traditions of the world say, Love thy neighbor as thyself. My answer is, I’m sorry, I can’t, but I’m gonna keep on trying, comma.”
And he’s right. That’s something we hear all the time, Love thy neighbor as thyself. But how many of us actually genuinely do it? I certainly don’t. I’ve had times when I have, sure, flashes o really loving someone the way that God loves them, but it doesn’t happen often. But that attitude, “I know that I am not perfect, but I’m constantly trying,” I think that’s why I’m so impressed with Paul Farmer. He does all these amazing things, but he does them on an individual level. He loves his patients and he remembers them, even though he sees hundreds of people and they’re from multiple countries. All throughout the book people say how they feel like he genuinely cares about them, and when he asks about their health or their family or their job he really wants to know and he remembers what they say.
So maybe I can’t rid the world of infectious disease. But I can try to love and remember the people in my life better than I currently do.