The Gift of Agency

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Turns out I won’t be heading to Long Beach. I’ll possibly be there Friday, but who knows! It is my belief that in my line of work, flexibility is one of the most important qualities to possess. My schedule is always changing. Imagine if I were responsible for a household? How would I deal with the constant fluctuations? My highest regards to the ones of my coworkers that are parents. I understand that parenthood is a choice, but for many is also a desire. Not one that I possess, but one that I deeply respect. The social structure we’ve created isn’t conducive towards community wellbeing – towards the health of the tribe. During Professor Brown’s Global Health Policy class (about a decade ago), I decided to focus my research on maternal leave policies around the world throughout the duration of the class. By the time I arrived at this class, I already had an understanding that the American “Healthcare System” wasn’t designed for the people, it was designed for the profits. In a publication by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States ranked #37 overall for healthcare systems in the world. Countries like Colombia, Morocco, Chile, and Costa Rica ranked above the US (Measuring Overall Health System Performance for 191 Countries, WHO). #37 doesn’t sound so bad, right? Considering there were 191 countries ranked, I suppose it doesn’t – if we’re going to look at this from the lens of competition. The ranking itself is a fun and interesting fact, but you know what makes it fascinating? The United States spends the most money in the world out of any country in its healthcare “system”. The US spends 17.8% of its GDP  in healthcare – that’s about $3.5 trillion (Health Care Spending in the United States and Other High-Income Countries, The Commonwealth Fund).  High expenditure for sub-par health outcomes doesn’t quite make sense, does it? What happens when we place value on profits over people? As for those maternal leave policies I mentioned when beginning to write this post? I’ll give you an option of three different sources ranging from journalism to policy to the scholarly to elaborate on the matter: (1) NPR – Countries Around the World Beat the US on Paid Parental Leave, (2) Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – Parental Leave Systems, and (3) Journal of Health Economics – The effects of maternity leave on children’s birth and infant health outcomes in the United States . (If you’d like to talk more about health policy, feel free to hit up that contact tab! This is what my degree is in and I love to geek out on this stuff. I can also point you to the experts in the field if that is of interest.)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote: <<In one of the Professor Brooks classes, he once ended it by saying, “The universe doesn’t care about fair. The universe is indifferent.” >> How do you define indifference? I went on to Merriam-Webster (online) and perused multiple definitions on the word indifferent and the following caught my eye: “marked for no special liking for or dislike of something.  This particular definition caught my eye because it’s impartial. It neutralizes the word rather than attempting to classify it as “good or bad”. Neutrality in the context of defining words can be liberating. After all what are words if not symbols that we agree on for deeper and complex concepts? While you can certainly interpret Professor Brooks’ statement to something along the lines of – “See! You’re on your own. Fend for yourself!” – I think that’s a rather bleak and egocentric interpretation of his words. Allow me to introduce you to an alternative viewpoint.

The Universe being indifferent gifts us humans with a blank canvas of possibility.  We are given free will to shape and create world(s) of our liking through our actions (“Receive your freedom as willingly as you accept your responsibilities, and the divine promises to provide everything you need.” Douglas Brooks) In comparison to the Universe, humankind is barely visible. Of course the universe is indifferent! Do you understand how life on Earth is one of trillions of things that occurs in the Universe at any given moment? Imagine if the Universe was a sentient being, which mirrored human thought patterns and attempted to forge forward with a very strict and specific agenda. I don’t know for you, but to me that sounds hellish! Alternatively (for easier conceptualization), imagine if you spent your entire days worried about the way one of trillions of cells in your body was aiding in the metabolism of glucose? That would be bizarre! There are bigger concepts to worry about, right? Since a young age I always thought it audacious to assume to know what God, the Universe, or anything for that matter “wants”. Human beingness is too finite and limited to make such assumptions. I’d rather reside inside of paradoxes, curiosities, explorations, mysteries, questions, and the unknown. Certainty is death, remember? 

“The universe doesn’t care about fair. The universe is indifferent.” (Professor Brooks) The indifference gifts us with a blank canvas – infinite possibility. Being gifted with the blank canvas of possibility leaves is up to us, as individuals that take part of  a greater collective, to create the world (and society) in which we want to reside. If we want fairness, we must collaborate to create it. If we want harmony we must engage in meaningful discourse and find ways to materialize it. If we want our species to survive amidst climate change we must delve into the overlap in the venn diagram of solutions and abandon our silos. If we want to have education, healthcare, and overall political systems that place value on human life, it will require the effort of multiple individuals in cooperation. The Universe (or anything “out there” for that matter) isn’t coming to save us, but with a little help from one another, we can save ourselves.

There is a beautiful spark of magic that is ignited the moment that turns to We (collective). On a Saturday night over a decade ago I found myself in the Emergency Department at Strong Memorial Hospital shadowing Dr. Nobay for the night. It was a slow night. There was a domestic violence case. Four overly intoxicated patients that were ED frequenters. As well as a pregnancy complication visit. I followed Dr. Nobay through the floor as she made her rounds. As we made our way back to the central station, her pager went off. There was a patient in critical condition that was going to be brought in via mercy flight. He had severe injuries to the head, heart, along with multiple fractures. In a matter of minutes, she contacted a team of experts and asked me to gear up. We got in the elevator and waited near the helicopter landing pad until the patient was ready to be taken to the trauma bay. As soon as the patient was on the floor, it was all hands on deck – in an organized manner – there was a method to the madness. It was like watching a miracle unfold in front of my eyes. There were multiple physicians, surgeons, nurses, and techs coming in and out of the room as was needed. A treatment plan was developed, surgeries were scheduled, all while the family was brought in to talk about decisions that needed to take place.

After the intensity of the case slowed down and the patient was taken into surgery, I reflected on the beauty of what I had just witnessed. The patient’s situation was heartbreaking. Yet the community effort that was put forth in that moment to keep that man alive is what I like to call – the work of God. Not because that moment included some sort of otherworldly divine intervention, but because of the opposite. Because a group of imperfect and messy humans decided at some point to study medicine and all found themselves in the same room at the same time with a wealth of expertise that was weaved together to give a man the chance to take one more breath. Regardless of what the outcome for that particular patient was (life or death), the magnificence of the situation was found in the attempt against all odds.  In that moment it really didn’t matter that surgeon A was once homeless and ended up graduating top of his class at Harvard as a Neurosurgeon. It didn’t matter that surgeon B went to Yale and comes from a long line of Cardiovascular surgeons. It didn’t matter that physician C spent 10 years in the military prior to becoming an Anesthesiologist. While all of their individual stories sound impressive and deserve recognition in their own right, it wasn’t any one of them that could’ve saved that patient’s life.  It was the combination of their experiences and knowledge that kept that person alive for one more second. And it wasn’t just the experience of the surgeons – it was also that of the physicians, nurses, techs, and every healthcare professional that made contact with that man on that bed that night.

The universe is indifferent. Since outcomes are still yet unknown and undefined, it is my belief that it is our moral responsibility to put forth effort in building the very best world that we can. I don’t know what lies in the cosmos beyond. There are people that dedicate their entire lives to researching the phenomenon that take place outside this Earth. Sometimes I browse through the NASA or National Geographic website and get trapped by the rapture of the words and images I find on the screen (or on print). Who knows what it or isn’t out there? It’s a fascinating mystery. I don’t know what lies in the great beyond, but I do know that I’m a breathing creature on this planet we call Earth. This planet we call Earth is currently facing many challenges. And I think that if we can link up collectively, we will find a way to forge forward.  Individuals can only do so much and go so far. Americans love stories of individual exceptionalism so they can use them as examples of what’s possible and continue to keep archaic systems riddled with structural inequalities alive. I’m not interested in what’s “possible” for one or two out of a million. I’m interested in how the present moment can be improved so that we can all live well. I can only go so far. But we? We can birth new worlds. After all, weren’t you and I the result of two I’s momentarily joining together into We

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb