I am always amazed at how seemingly disjointed events can fortuitously be linked. One can argue that it is divine providence or just pure coincidence. I don’t have the answer to that argument but choose to relish in the glory that such revelations can provide and “listen” to the message going forward. Let me discuss three such recent events.
First, in 2013, I had the thrilling pleasure to hear Bryan Stevenson at an event sponsored by the Riley Institute of Furman University.1Mr. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. I was moved to hear the passionate description of his work on behalf of people wrongly accused of crimes yet incarcerated for inhumane periods of times under equally inhumane conditions. He further goes on to detail the unequal justice system in our country, especially for our citizens of color. The mass incarceration of our less fortunate countrymen raises serious questions about our ability to fairly apply the standards of justice in our country. His work had left a haunting impression and struck a real chord. I remember his statement—the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice—as a call to action. I just did not know the action.
Next, in October 2014, I saw that Bryan Stevenson just published his book (JUST MERCY) about the experiences above.2 Mr. Stevenson poignantly chronicles his work and engages the reader in a way unanticipated. He reminds us that the measure of our society (and us as citizens) is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
Lastly, I picked up the November 12, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and found an article titled THE QUALITY OF MERCY: WILL YOU BE MY DOCTOR?3 This article addresses the calling of medicine and the difficulties with providing care to certain “difficult” patients. The author notes a previously attributed quote that “mercy is a willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”4 He further states that mercy is a “developed human capacity that involves hard, uncertain, and hidden work.” Works of mercy cannot be measured or specifically quantified yet they define the essential elements of our ability to provide meaningful care.
I now see that mercy, and the discomfort that it invites, is a vital part of my mission going forward. The work of Bryan Stevenson reminds me of my responsibility to my fellow citizens. Neither Mr. Stevenson nor I are advocates of no punishment for unjust deeds. Rather it is critical that punishment in our country be fair and just—and equal. We must work constantly to reverse the social issues that lead to the situations that allow inequities to exist. Poverty and the lack of equal opportunity in education, employment, and health unfortunately are the breeding ground for so many of the problems that we face and have to be addressed as a communal responsibility.
As we engage in the work of our community, it is critical that mercy be at the forefront of our actions. It involves hard work, and if we are willing to engage in the “chaos” of others, great things can be accomplished. Five Steps to Community Improvement that may provide a template for action in our community involvement include: learn to be the best parent you can, get involved, stay involved, love for others and forgiveness.5,6
The chaos of others can be quite discomforting. It is difficult to accept our roles at times to treat the less fortunate as we would our own family. Yet that is the measure of our ability to exhibit mercy and provide the nurturing care that is necessary to improve our lives, the lives of our fellow citizens, and the life of our community. As Dr. Daaleman states, “if the arc of medicine is to ultimately bend toward healing, mercy will be its fulcrum.”3 Whether engaged in medical service as a physician or community service as a citizen, we need to let mercy be our guide and let compassion and forbearance lead us forward.
(Originally written in 2015 and published in the GHS Proceedings May 2016)
- ONESouthCarolina Conference (The DLI Graduate Weekend), Hilton Head Island, SC, March 2013.
- Stevenson B: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel and Grau, 2014, New York.
- Daaleman TP. The quality of mercy: will you be my doctor? JAMA. 2014;312:1863-4.
- Keenan The Works of Mercy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; 2007.
- Saul RA. Columbine High School–April 20, 1999. What can I do to help my own community? J S C Med Assoc. 2005;101:35-7.
- Saul RA. My Children’s Children: Raising Young Citizens in the Age of Columbine. CreateSpace, 2013, Charleston SC.