This is one of two reflections given on Sunday, June 10, from members of our San Francisco and East Bay Discipleship Groups. Our Discipleship Groups are small groups that meet monthly to learn about and practice following in the way of Jesus.
By Amy Bolaños
I called the patient’s name in the waiting room. A man in his mid-50s, unshaven, in tattered hat and clothes, stood up abruptly and walked brusquely toward me, barely acknowledging me as I greeted him and led him back to the exam room where I would take his blood pressure, review his medications and prepare him for his visit with the doctor. The tough, guarded look in his eyes, as well as his agitated body language, warned me to keep my voice and body language calm and to notice my safe and quick exit route from the room. As soon as I asked him how he was doing today, he launched into a barrage of threats to the stranger on the street who had just stolen his belongings. He hadn’t planned to come to the clinic today, but 30 minutes ago he was mugged by another man.
He had just picked up his medications from the pharmacy a few days ago, and they were in the bag that was stolen. “The meds aren’t going to do him any good! They’re for my heart! I hope he eats them all and it kills him!” The patient then began a 5-10 minute loud, angry monologue listing ways in which he planned to carry out revenge on this man. “I’ll find him, and when I do I’ll rip his face off! I’ll smash his head in!” etc. I just sat and listened to him vent his anger. When I could get a word in, I validated his pain and anger, trying to imagine experiencing such violence myself and the emotions it would bring up for me. I also reassured him that we would be able to help him replace his medications.
As the volume of his voice began to drop to a normal conversational tone, his train of thought shifted to his current living situation. The reason his bag was stolen was because he drifted off briefly while sitting on the sidewalk because he didn’t have a place to sleep the night before and hated staying in the shelters. Although he had a bed at one of the shelters in the neighborhood, he felt just as threatened there as on the street. “I hate being around all these people.” Then, with a sort of wistfulness, he began to tell me of his favorite place to camp. “I’ve got a nest at Land’s End, tucked into the cliff, behind the trees, away from the path. Nobody can see me there. Nobody bothers me there. It’s just me … and the racoons. The mama racoon always comes in looking for some food. The others are too shy, but she’s not afraid of me. She comes in for some of the food I share with her. Greets me every time. She’s probably wondering where I am.”
I couldn’t help but think of a concept we had just explored in our Discipleship Group of “What does it mean or matter to be interdependentwith all Earthly life?”1 This concept is called Deep Ecology, which challenges our Christian beliefs of humans as the ultimate valuable beings on Earth who are responsible for the stewardship of all other beings. Instead, humans, according to this theory, are simply a part of the whole and are interconnected with all of Earth. This shift is important because, as caretakers of this Earth, we are morally responsible for its well-being and are asked to sacrifice, to be better people, to show more concern. But as a part of the whole, such as an arm or a leg, the Earth is our body, and in caring for it, we are caring for ourselves. Joanna Macy summarizes it well, “What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited…[But] the requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.”2 This does not mean that we are only selfish and not compassionate. On the contrary, compassion, which literally means “‘to suffer with’ … is evidence of our interconnectedness with all life.”3
Back in the room with this patient … One second, I felt threatened by this man and could’ve called the clinic IP (institutional police) due to his murderous threats to another human being; and the next, I felt such a kinship with this stranger who was recognizing the beauty of the nature around him and engaging with it in such a loving way. I said something like, “Wow, it sounds like these raccoons are like family. That’s beautiful! It’s interesting how interconnected we are! Even connected to our fellow humans. It seems like carrying out those threats on that person who hurt you would only perpetuate the violence and harm that was done to you. As interconnected as we are, wouldn’t that just be shooting yourself in the foot?” My new comrade, nodded his head thoughtfully, “Yeah, I’d probably just get myself in trouble.”
As I walked out of the room, I was reminded of another theme that our Discipleship Group focused on this year, which was recognizing both the beauty and the pain in life. “Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world….Active hope is a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love.”4 I recognized that the pain that I felt for this man, who had been wronged in so many ways, grew from this interconnectedness that we shared. He and the racoons helped me to discover more reasons for hope and occasions for love.
1. Joanna Macy, Molly Brown. Coming Back to Life. New Society, 2014, p.43.
2. John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, Arne Naess. Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings. New Society, 1988, p.20.
3. Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone. Active Hope. New Society, 2012, p.67.
4. Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone. Active Hope. New Society, 2012, p. 35.