Science fiction author Douglas Adams once described something he called a “Somebody Else’s Problem Field,” a kind of force field that could be dropped over an unpleasant object so that we could all safely ignore what was clearly “somebody else’s problem.”
I’d be lying if I told you I don’t sometimes wish I had one of these. Lou needs a new knee, so badly that he cannot get in and out of his house because he lives in one of those impossible Pittsburgh residences with 164 steps leading to the front door and he can neither walk down them nor be wheeled out in a wheelchair. If I send him to the orthopedist for an appointment he will not go. Yet if he arrives in the hospital due to inability to walk and inability to care for himself at home, he will be admitted briefly, orthopedics will see him and say, “yep, looks pretty bad. Follow up in the office in two weeks so we can schedule the surgery,” and clear him for discharge.
If someone really takes pity, he may end up in a nursing and rehabilitation facility, where he will remain either until he gets fed up and decides he has important business at home that he isn’t really capable of completing in this condition, or until his insurance days run out, whether or not he is actually done recovering. Then he will go home and this will all start again.
In medicine Somebody Else’s Problem is what Lisa Rosenbaum recently termed, “The Not-My-Problem Problem.” Rosenbaum was writing about the complex care of one of her hospital patients who was suffering tremendously due to a blocked biliary drain. Ironically, because the patient was under the care of three different specialties in two different hospitals, she could get no relief at all from her discomfort – just like Lou. Everywhere he goes, he gets nowhere.
If you have strep throat, or for that matter if you are obviously having a heart attack, it is no problem to find a place for healing. One goes to urgent care, the other to the emergency department on his way to the cath lab, and we work wonders. But where can people like Lou, or Rosenbaum’s Ms. Clark, find a place for healing, when no one seems to want to disturb a status quo that says we each need to remain within our own silo?
Think of a healing space as a sacred space, like a meditation garden or a cathedral, a space that is meticulously planned and deliberately constructed. A sacred space is a place for the Divine presence, however you understand that idea, to dwell among us. A healing space is a place for a person who is suffering to sit with a healer and have that presence sit between them, helping them to heal together. How do we build a space, especially within our current system, that serves these kinds of people, who are suffering in ways that no one individual seems able or willing to address?
When the Israelites were building a sacred space for the first time, they did it in the desert. Everyone was taxed ½ a shekel, regardless of their wealth, in order to create the space, but then something extraordinary happened – some individuals were so moved, and gave in such excess, that Moses and Aaron actually had to tell them, “Stop! We’ve got enough!” Yet even with so much giving, when Moses disappeared up the mountain for forty days, the whole project went south and they ended up with a golden calf, a complete corruption of the purpose of their generosity.
We build lots of healing spaces in this country that are very deliberately constructed, perfectly appointed and LEED certified, where it is nonetheless possible to stay there for weeks and walk out suffering worse than when you went in. What ingredient is missing that can’t be made up for with more gold rings, blue threads, bamboo flooring and mood lighting?
What’s missing is the My Problem field. After all the planning, donating, and crafting, the pieces of the Tabernacle came to Moses so that he could assemble them himself. Even after delegating the craftsmanship to Bezalel and Oholiab, the final act of assembly, and therefore of responsibility, was Moses’ alone. Moses is the general contractor, bearing the ultimate burden for whatever his subcontractors may have done (full credit to Alexa Weitzman of www.sustainablepantry.com for that image). His reward for this dedication is the descent of the Divine presence into the Tabernacle, so fully that he himself cannot even enter.
Building a sacred space like this isn’t easy. Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia cathedral is still unfinished, 93 years after the death of its architect, Antonio Gaudi. The idea of the space can sometimes be so lofty it seems impossible to build. Yet like the Israelites in the desert, or family physician PJ Parmar in the “medical desert” of Colfax Avenue in Denver, people figure out how to do it. They just need to decide, like Parmar, or Moses before him, that it is their problem to solve. These things need to become a Yes-My-Problem Problem, or at least an Our Problem – something the healer and the sufferer solve together, in the sacred space they have created for the purpose.
Lou, you and I have work to do on our problem, don’t we?