Monday, September 19, 2011

In Which I Decide to Become a Doctor

I was 10 years old when I decided that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. That was the year when Lucy, from the cartoon “Peanuts”, set herself up to give advice for 5 cents, noting: “The Doctor is IN”.  That was also the year when my favorite TV show, “Robin Hood” (with the romantic Richard Greene in the title role), went off the air.   It was two years before my mother came down with rheumatic fever and was in bed for a whole year, during which time I helped care for her, and her doctor, who made house calls, taught me to give injections into an orange.

I can’t remember just what it was that prompted me to write in my diary that day, “I will be a doctor when I grow up!”  I wanted to help people and take care of them.   Nurtured by my hero who “robbed from the rich to give to the poor,” I developed a strong sense of social justice even as a child.  A Jewish upbringing and education impelled into my very bones the sense that giving to those in need is not charity, but justice.  Living in the shadow of the Holocaust, we knew that during our parents’ lives, six million of our people, along with so many others, were senselessly destroyed, wiping out a whole culture.   As a child, I was determined to fight for my life and the lives of others, and never to submit passively to anyone’s destruction.  Aware of oppression, my sense of commitment grew as I did, that I would stand on the side of life and liberation, and make a difference with my life and work.

So my path toward doctorhood seemed clear and obvious. I never considered bumps and obstacles that waited around the bend in the road.

What Does it Mean to be a Hero?

I have found myself thinking a lot about heroes.  Who is really heroic?  Are heroes born that way, with a Destiny looming ahead?  Is heroism a rare thing, the subject of poetry, books, movies, and headline news?   Or can anyone become a hero, and if so, how does it happen?  Above all, what does it mean to be a hero?

We have seen, in books and film, the Greek hero, often related to gods, who takes on impossible tasks and mythic journeys.  Dictionary definitions focus on courage, bravery, selflessness, and valor.  They mention sacrifice, fortitude, steadfastness, dedication.  Today we think of people like firefighters, warriors,   Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa.  Our kids think of superheroes, like Batman and Spiderman, and anime and manga characters who are larger than life.

Sometimes in the news there is a story about an ordinary person who does something heroic, like rushing into a burning building to rescue those inside.  Other stories feature people who, risking their own lives, stop assaults or gunmen.  The events of the 9/11 attack and destruction are full of stories of “ordinary” people who heroically moved into danger, risking their own lives to save others.

Turning our attention to the neighborhood or schoolyard, we can see another hero; the person who stands up to bullies or interrupts an unkind or demeaning remark.  There are so many people whose quieter courage leads them to confront poverty, oppression, cruelty, injustice, war, intolerance, and apathy, people who are unknown to most of us, who are never in the news.

The hero that interests me the most is the one that can be found inside most of us, if we really look.  This hero has all the qualities, including courage, sacrifice, fortitude, dedication, selflessness.   The mythic tasks are on a smaller scale, but no less daunting.  The journey lasts a lifetime, and there are usually many obstacles, some labyrinths, a monster or two, and numerous bends and twists in the road.  It requires everything we’ve got, sometimes including divine intervention, and the reward for each task completed is the next task. 

This hero is a parent, a teacher, a construction worker, a doctor.  She is an artist, a lawyer, an engineer, a plumber.  He is a nurse, a salesman, a musician, an animal control officer.  This hero struggles with illness, raising children, saving the environment; with disability, fatigue, discrimination, paying the rent; with surviving abuse, homelessness, and caring for elders.  This hero is you and me.