“Although the world is full of suffering,
it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
– Helen Keller
I love the Olympics. The convergence of so many countries and cultures. The tremendous physical feats. The electrifying competition. The intense emotions of triumph and defeat. The sportsmanship. The surprises.
But what I love most about the Olympics are the stories of athletes who have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles — and overcome them.
Children who were abandoned or orphaned, who acknowledged that, while they couldn’t re-write the beginning of their story, they could write a better ending. Athletes who lived in poverty, made countless sacrifices, practiced for years behind closed doors and believed in themselves long before anyone else did. People who experienced the depths of defeat and despair but kept pushing through physical and emotional pain to emerge even stronger than before.
Watching these athletes raise their arms in triumph, step up to the podium to receive their medals, and cry tears of joy as their national anthem is played and their nation’s flag is raised, is incredibly inspiring. I’ve gotten teary-eyed more than once as I watched an athlete’s life-long dream come true.
I spent the past ten days in Europe with my sister, visiting Paris, England, Northern Ireland and Ireland. One of the things I enjoyed about the trip (besides quality sister time, amazing food and gorgeous architecture) was gaining distance from the U.S. — a country I love, but for the time being, seems to have lost its mind.
While I was away, I purposefully didn’t watch the news or read many newspapers. Once I landed, it seemed that not only was the craziness still in full swing, but somehow, there seemed to be even more of it. More derogatory, rude, misogynistic, thoughtless actions and words than before.
As I caught up on news and watched new stories unfolding, all I could think is that not only have we lost our minds in the mayhem to which we’re growing accustomed, but we have also lost our souls’ ability to hear, and we’re saying unthinkable things because our consciences are going deaf.
Last night Hillary Clinton made history by accepting the Democratic Nomination, which means she has the potential to become the first female president of the United States of America.
My Facebook and Twitter accounts blew up with people who were excited about the U.S. “making history.”
Which is fine. Whether you agree with her politics or not, simply looking at the campaign through the lens of gender, it’s Clinton’s moment, and it’s an important moment.
But instead of being excited about the moment, if I’m really honest, I just have to tell you — it makes my heart ache.
Because while this might be a woman making U.S. history, the U.S. is not making world history. In terms of having female presidents, Germany, England, Liberia, Bangladesh, Lithuania, Senegal, Norway, Latvia, Chile, Poland, Switzerland, Croatia and the Philippines have beaten us to the punch.
While multiple studies have shown that women are more effective CEOs and presidents than men, the U.S. has been sluggish to acknowledge this data, let alone act on it.
Why? I woke up asking this morning, shedding tears for all the women who have been shut out through the history of the U.S.
In airports and metro stations, I often see signs that say, “If You See Something, Say Something.” It’s a request from law enforcement to notify them if you see any dangerous or suspicious activity.
This past weekend, I hosted three of my dearest friends for Girls Weekend at a home in eastern Oregon where I’m housesitting for the month of July. During the day, we kayaked and picnicked and explored the Columbia River and Wallowa Lake. In the evenings, we made dinner and sat around talking until waaaaaaay too late into the night.
I had the idea to do a Question Jar. We each wrote five questions on separate scraps of paper, and then put them into the jar. When it was your turn, you had to close your eyes and pick one of the questions from the jar and answer it — and then everyone else had to answer it, too.
Some questions were light-hearted, like Who was your first kiss? If 2016 was a movie, which song would be the soundtrack? What are the best 3 things that have happened to you over the past year?
But there was one question that really stood out. Someone wrote the question, What 3 adjectives would you use to describe each girl in this room?
“How we live our days…is how we live our lives.” — Annie Dillard
It happened gradually over more than a decade but, as I wrote last week, I went from saying, “I want to change the world someday” to saying, “I want to heal the world someday.”
Then, I realized that it wasn’t possible for me to heal the entire world. It was only possible for me to heal my world — the people in my social circle, my neighborhood, my faith community, my medical practice, my family, the people with whom I was personally in contact. So I began to say, “I want to heal my world someday.”
But I kept waiting for something to happen in the future. Waiting to finish my degree, waiting to get a high-profile job, waiting to write a best-selling book, waiting to get my “big break,” whatever that turned out to be. I thought I would heal the world from a high, far-reaching platform.
Getting a book deal actually reinforced this idea, because everyone in the publishing world asks you about your platform. How many followers do you have on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? How many hits does your blog get? How many times does your name appear in Google Alerts?
So I kept waiting for my platform to expand and elevate.
Yesterday I flew from Florida to Oregon, which means that I was on airplanes for most of the day. I got home from the airport around midnight and checked my phone — to find the horrific news coming out of Dallas. Coming on the heels of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the murder of five police officers was….well….words simply fail to describe the tragedy and travesty.
I woke up this morning with so many emotions, which I tried to untangle as I sat on the couch, drinking my coffee, watching it rain. I felt grieved, appalled, saddened….and helpless.
I don’t live in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis or Dallas. I can’t bring the guilty parties to justice. I can’t bring back the lives that we have lost over the past three days.
If you’re anything like me, maybe you woke up feeling this way, too. What do we do when we feel hopeless, powerless, helpless? What do we do in the wake of senseless tragedies?
Yesterday I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World And Me. It’s a letter from a black father to his son, reflecting on his experience of discrimination, racism and the broken narrative Americans live with, where wealthy white men have pursued the American Dream at the expense of people whose skin color was different from theirs. (They also pursued it at the expense of people whose gender was different from theirs — but that’s a post for a different time.)
The men who colonized North America invoked God’s name and therefore, it supposedly followed, God’s blessing, as they lied to, pillaged and poisoned Native Americans.
As they bought, sold, whipped, raped and humiliated Africans who they consigned into slavery.
As they wrote that, “All men are created equal,” but conveniently excluded people of other skin colors from the definition of “all men.”
As they hired scientists to publish reports saying that Africans were closer to animals than human beings. As they used euphemisms like Noble Savages, White Saviors and Manifest Destiny to justify their horrific behavior.
As they preached the inherent right to pursue liberty and freedom, while denying that right to others.
Today, as America celebrates Independence Day, I’ve been thinking about what Americans — especially American Christians — are supposed to do with the freedom we have.
I have spent the past nine months working on my second book, which is about seeing Jesus show up in Togo, the least happy country in the world, during the three months I spent working at a hospital there last year.
I sent in the second rewrite last week. The day after I turned it in, I was riding the train from Bloomington, IL to Chicago to take my niece and nephews to the zoo. As we passed miles and miles of corn fields, I started out the window, trying to figure out how to explain what my book is really about.
In the writing world, they call it “The Elevator Pitch.” In other words, if you’re on the elevator with someone else, how can you explain your writing project to them before you get off on the next floor?
The closest I’d been able to come was that people talk about the art of medicine, and the science of medicine, but my book is the theology or spirituality of medicine.
When I interviewed for the Yale PA program, I told the admissions panel I was going to change the world someday. But what I have found in more than 10 years of practicing medicine in ER/Urgent Care settings, and then in Togo, is that it’s not possible for me to change patients. It’s only possible for me to heal them.
It’s not possible for me to single-handedly make them eat healthier, stop smoking, exercise more or take their medicine every day. It’s only possible for me to help the people who want to be helped, to offer resources and encouragement to patients who are motivated to change themselves.
To put it simply, if I wanted to change people, I should’ve become a politician. I should’ve spent money on a campaign, been voted into office, and wielded my power and influence to legislate behavior. But if I wanted to heal people, I needed to follow Jesus. And this, I realized, is the “Elevator Pitch” for the book. It’s about learning to heal a broken world instead of changing a wrong world.
Looking back on my interview at Yale’s PA program, I try to remember what I meant when I told them I was going to change the world some day.
In my mind, “changing the world” mean that I was single-handedly going to fix broken systems and places around the globe and that, because of my efforts, the entire world would be a radically different place.
I didn’t even know exactly what I was going to do for the world. I just felt energized and optimistic and, though Baptists don’t use this language, divinely anointed and appointed to do something special and major in the world.
And then, a year after I finished PA school, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Okay,” I thought. “This could be my big break. A book about my cancer experience.”
I imagined writing a literary masterpiece, with an insert of glossy photos that chronicled my journey.
I asked my mom to take pictures. Even when, after the mastectomy, I was in horrible pain. Even when, a week later when I was discharged from the hospital, I looked like a heroin addict coming down from a bad high — thin, pale, with bruises on my arms and dark circles under my eyes.
When I was interviewing at Yale’s Physician Assistant program, I was 22 years old, sitting across from a daunting admissions committee. One of the men on the panel lowered his reading glasses, looked down at me, and asked, “Ms. Thebarge, why should we let you into Yale?”
In that moment, I knew I had two choices. I could play it safe and give the usual answers — talking about Yale’s advantages, and about my GPA, volunteer experience and pre-requisite courses.
Or, I could go for broke and tell the man what I was really thinking.
I decided that Yale was never going to let a soft-spoken Baptist pastor’s daughter in anyway, so I went for broke.
I said, “The reason why you should let me into Yale is because I’m going to change the world someday, and I’m giving you the chance to say, ‘We knew her when.'”
The admissions panel was speechless.