Friday, January 13, 2012

Higher Power

A good friend called me yesterday.  It was not the usual phone call I receive on the 11th of January . She told me she was just diagnosed with Stage IV Breast Cancer.  I was at a loss for words.
Our conversation proceeded with mutual crying, reassurance on my part, my reminder to her of her wonderful and supportive husband, the far-reaching community she has around her and the great institution she chose to get her care.  The conversation quickly turned.

“Do you believe in God?” she asked. I was caught off-guard.  My mind did its usual spinning in an attempt to breakdown of the question.  What exactly did she mean by God?  Am I going to offend her with some snide remark?  Should I avoid the question by using the convenient and polite excuse to not talk about religion or politics?  Should I bring up my resentment of the Catholic Church into this simple question?  Am I going to intellectualize this and think of other religions?

“Christ (as if I needed some profane guidance), don’t ask me that,” I thought.

I simply answered,  “I don’t know.”  “So you’re an agnostic? ”she asked.  “I don’t know that either,” I replied.

My second half-century is going to be a lot harder than the first.

Before the phone call, I had just read an old colleague’s blog. A fellow physician, he writes about his ongoing battle with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.  His blogs are filled with honest observations, irony and humor. I couldn’t help but think of what he wrote when talking to my friend.

He wrote yesterday about patient autonomy. How in the course of his illness, he forfeited much of it to his own physicians even though he himself is an oncologist. I couldn’t help but think of the philosophical implications of his premise especially as it concerned my friend and her question.  

But by forfeiting autonomy in illness we turn ourselves over to external forces.  May I say a higher power? Is it science or religion? Is it a continuum?  Or does religion take over where science leaves off?  Can we purely have faith in just either? Is it a minute by minute thing or sweeping philosophy? Do both constitute a higher power and in a sense the same thing?

In college I had a wonderful professor in a course titled “Philosophy  of Medicine.”  His course was always crowded and I certainly knew why. We studied most of the great philosophers who wrote about medicine. Hippocrates with the works.  There was no one philosophy I derived from this course except that science, especially the most personal and human of all sciences, medicine, is  complicated.  There are no clear answers. Babies do not come with instructions.

Again my second half-century is going to be a lot harder than the first. 

Einstein once wrote that "Life is like a bicycle, only when balanced, can it move forward." Science is not going to save the world.  Some would argue that it might be it’s ultimate destruction (think global warming). On the other hand, faith in the unfounded is purely superstition. In medicine, maybe we need to mix the right amount of science with the right amount of faith.  Maybe we all need to surrender to a higher power of some sort to progress. What is the right amount?

I don’t know.

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