My column in Sunday’s Greenville News.

I have met some characters in my career, and their stories are forever archived in the library of my mind. Some of them were physicians, of course. I recall one who, when paged, always called back collect. I could only laugh and shake my head. There was another who made me so angry that if dueling had still been an option, I might have asked, ‘sabers or pistols, sir?’

I recall one of my residents in medical school who disappeared on call nights and in ‘morning report’ (the daily debrief of the night’s joys and terrors) explained how shocked he was that his pager just hadn’t worked all night! Not a good way to earn the love of your co-workers.

Crazy doctor stories are always fun, but in the end they pale in comparison to the stories we hear from our patients. Privacy laws being what they are, I am constrained. Nevertheless, I recall crime confessions made while a knife protruded from one patient’s back. (The prospect of one’s possibly having a luncheon meeting with the Almighty apparently provides a certain moral clarity.) I remember the addict who had perfect, flawless hair and told me the same story, like a church liturgy, every single time I saw him. In short, someone always stole his pain pills.

I’ll never forget the alcoholic (a previously convicted violent criminal), who in his antiquity threatened to kill us every few ER visits. And then, in the harsh, bright, relative sobriety of morning would laugh and shake hands, and amble his way out the door to go home and begin the cycle all over again. My heart breaks at the thought of the young man with mental illness whom we legally couldn’t hold, but whose mother wanted to admit for his own good. I hope she saw him again after he sat down in the taxi, stone-faced, and drove away into the night as she cried.

Thinking over these tales of woe, I realized how few of the things I remember best were good news, or easy situations, or ‘nice’ people (in the traditional sense). I don’t have a great list of happy stories told by polite, productive citizens who were injured while feeding orphans. I remember the difficult ones. I remember the problem children, as it were.

I’m sure any competent evolutionary biologist can devise a reasonable explanation for this. For example, perhaps they were all object lessons. I remember them so that I won’t repeat their mistakes. I once saw a shirt that said, ‘it may be that the entire purpose for your life is merely to serve as a warning to others.’

On the other hand, I remember them in part for the same reason that I read the names in old, overgrown graveyards; so they’ll not be forgotten. Not yet. The same reason I read names on monuments, or the dedications in books. As homage.

But on a different level, I think I remember them because it’s the difficult people, the hard people, the wounded and sad people who need our attention the most. They are the lost children. They the squeaky wheels. Maybe I remember them so that I will know who to look for in the future, and be attentive to their special needs, their deeper wounds, shattered dreams and aching hearts. So I’ll know to look beyond intoxication and anger to the slightly smudged and tarnished image of God before me.

They help me, you know. Here in the Bible belt, it’s always a dangerous temptation to associate worth with being clean and proper and good. One only needs to go back to the scriptures to see that for the lie it is. Some of the best of the cast of Biblical characters were, in some very real ways, some of the worst.

This Palm Sunday we remember Jesus, himself a lover and teller of stories, a man ever drawn to the lives and stories of the broken and suffering, riding into Jerusalem near the end of his time on earth. He was ready to complete his mission to ‘seek and to save that which is lost.’ One of the many accusations against him was that he was a ‘friend of sinners.’ A sinner myself, I’m happy to hear it.

But honestly, it’s no wonder! They recognize their deep need. And they almost always have better stories than ‘nice’ people.


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