Here is a talk I gave last week to our hospital auxiliary association; mostly made up of retired volunteers.  They give us so much, and this is my tribute to them.

Capacity, utility and volunteers

Thank you for letting me speak to you tonight. It is an honor. I have today been at two different ends of the medical world . Today at lunch, I spoke to a Christian Medical Student’s association at USC in Columbia, SC. And now, I am honored to speak to you, who do so much to keep the hospital functioning by your gift of volunteerism.

Tonight I want to talk about capacity and functionality. About utility and usefulness. In preparing to do so, I began to think about how I became the way I am, and my mind wandered to ancestry. I suppose that ancestry has much to do with who we are, though I doubt it is the sole determinant.

Like most Americans, I have many flavors of ancestor and I suppose each left me with personality quirks. I know that I had some Irish ancestors, because I love sad songs and stories of fairies and scary nights under the autumn sky.

I probably had some Scottish ones, because I love to hear the pipes (and my son plays them beautifully). And I can’t help but love the idea of a bold last stand against all odds.

I must have had some English ones, because I love the language, and I love the ideals of chivalry. And I adore a cup of tea and a warm fire on a wet night.

There are probably, within my DNA, some French genes. I enjoy what little French I know. I love to eat good food. And I am left speechless by the right combination of high heels and tight skirt.

But my family name is German, probably Leib in the old days. And some of my people were called Midkiff. And some were called Messinger. German words are fairly easy for me to speak. And I love things that are useful.

All of my adult life I have loved things that I can use. Oh, I like art. It is lovely and I have some of it. But I have always been uncomfortable with things that existed for the sake of appearance only. As a child I hated toy cars that wouldn’t roll, action figures that couldn’t hold their weapons.

As a young man, I never understood replica swords or guns. If it wouldn’t actually work, if there was no edge, no business end, I was not the least bit interested. My sons and daughter are much the same.

I like function, utility, capacity. I suppose that’s how I ended up in medicine. I began my collee career in journalism, which is very important to a free nation. But I became bored and restless because I did not have a physical skill, because I did not feel I had sufficient utility for society. I believe I was answering a divine calling. My career as an emergency physician has given me more skills than I ever imagined I would need, or would use. And I feel useful, functional, necessary and capable.

Now that I have been in practice for 17 years since residency, I have come to despise physicians who are not useful. And believe me, they exist. But then, I don’t like administrators, nurses or anyone else who is not useful, who is not capable, who does not hold motion and utility in high regard.

My children are so amazing, and so brilliant (no I’m not biased, why do you ask?). They love science and mythology, language and theology. They read ravenously and they are deep thinkers on deep issues. I do not know what careers will occupy them. But whatever they do, their mother and I strive to make them useful. They have taken CPR. They are learning to Blacksmith (more on that later). They are learning to build, to pick proper clothing, to be polite. They are teaching themselves to sign.

These are more to me than college resume materials, or flashy things for a proud parent to show off. They represent young people becoming useful to other human individuals and therefore, by default, to society.

And it is my dream that they will always find ways to be useful, in their chosen professions and in the application of their individual ‘doctor’s bags’ of personal skills.

Which brings me to you, dear auxiliary. You are a group of people who believe in utility, in usefulness, in practicality. Most of you are retired, some of you are not. But no matter. Rather than spend your retirement (or your free time) sitting idle, you have chosen the higher, better path. You have chosen function over dysfunction, you have chosen utility over uselessness. You have chosen to help rather than be helped, to serve rather than be served.

You could do so many things! No one would condemn you if you decided to sit back on your life’s laurels and do nothing until death took you. Well, I might. Not because it is my place to judge, but because of who you are.

If you did, however, I might condemn you because you are people of many skills, many gifts, and much passion. You either volunteer the skills and knowledge you already possessed from lifetimes of good works, or seeking something new, you learn the weird ways of the hospital and how best to make it a more pleasant place.

You comfort the sick, you run a thousand little errands (each of which add up to the practical effect of nurses and secretaries having more time to do their critical jobs). You guide the lost, bring coffee to the stressed, stock shelves, fill out forms, laugh at jokes, tell jokes, encourage us, educate us, inspire us and do untold other things which, when taken as a hole, would probably cause our hospital to be financially untenable were they paid for out of the budget. Perhaps best of all, you model for the young the fact that age and retirement do not mean disengagement. And for those of you not retired, you model the great gift of reaching out beyond one’s own small world to engage a larger one.

You suggest to me a Biblical metaphor. Moses, after leading the children of Israel to the promised land, died ‘in his full vigor.’ You remind me that he did not go to the beach to play cards until the end. He did not sit and collect his daily manna alotment and pass the reigns of leadership off so that he could rest. No, he was useful, he was called until the last day of his life.

And you remind me of the iron forge the kids and I are putting together. You see, one of our passions now is finding new metal to work with. We cruise antique shops and flea-markets for old railroad spikes, metal tongs, sanders and any bit of tool, or scrap metal, we can find.

We see in the metal the potential for new life. We see, in an old shovel, a new tool. We see in the thin piece of scrap, a knife or axe. We see in the used, the rusted, the previous incarnation the hints of a new life, a new utility, a new value previously unrecognized, or untested. We have done this, making steak flippers from scraps, making sharp, heavy knives from railroad spikes. My daugher once making a heart necklace from a piece of metal ignored on the ground, unused, unuseful.

You are all bits of metal of various shape and size, of various degrees of previous use, of scratches and bends, of twists and even (sometimes) of rust. But you beg, constantly, to be made necessary. To be picked up and thrust back into the fire and used over and over.

So all I can say is thank you for being useful. For believing in usefulness, in calling, in strength, in volunteerism. In a world where stunning numbers of young people prefer incapacity and inactivity, thank you for rejecting that. For being paragons of usefulness. For being ready, always, to make the world a little better.

Thank you for believing in the community, in the hospital and in yourselves. Thank you for being metal, reborn in the fire of life, to be made necessary again.

Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathon Livingston Seagull, said, ‘here is a test to know if your work on earth is done. If you are alive, it isn’t.’ From what I’ve seen, yours has just begun.

I leave you with a poem:

An emerald is as green as grass,
A ruby red as blood;
A sapphire shines as blue as heaven;
A flint lies in the mud.

A diamond is a brilliant stone,
To catch the world’s desire;
An opal holds a fiery spark;
But a flint holds fire.
Christina Rossetti

Thank you for everything!


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