If I could be someone else, who would I be? Oh, I don’t know, how about someone brilliant—say, someone who grew up poor, but through sheer brilliance and effort got himself to Duke, say, on full scholarship, and then Harvard Medical School. But I’d also want to be someone who wanted to, say, do good works, maybe even save the world, since I had bumped into liberation theology along the way. So I would spend most of my time at Medical School, not in Cambridge taking courses, but rather in Haiti; pretty much my entire first year, in fact, building and funding a clinic when I was supposed to be taking classes. And then ace my exams anyway.
And, even better, somehow inspire fierce loyalty among everyone I meet, such that they all want to work with me and help me with my health care for the poor project so that it grows larger and larger, eventually into a large medical foundation called Partners in Health, which outfits like the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation, among others, use as their primary vehicle for their medical work in, oh, Russia, Peru and seemingly half of Africa. I would spend much of my life among the poor, bringing them what aid and succor, both personal and institutional, that I could. I’d be Paul Farmer.
And I’d probably write a bunch of brilliant books about Haiti, AIDS, general matters of public health, that sort of thing. And still teach at Harvard Medical School, not to mention Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, while I was heading up the rest of this. Along the way, I’d pick up a Macarthur and a bunch of other fellowships and awards, including a slew of honorary degrees. And I’d get some good writer, a Pulitzer prize winner, say—how about Tracy Kidder—to write a book about me. It could be called something exotic, kind of like Haiti. How about Mountains Beyond Mountains— that sounds like a good title.
Well, it’s not going to happen, because the job of being Paul Farmer is already taken, by Paul Farmer, actually. And he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Where do these people come from? They pop up, with these talents and accomplishments and energy that leave the rest of us staring in astonishment. Farmer really did go off to Haiti in his first year of med school, skipping most of it, and really did, pretty single-handedly, get a clinic built in an area that had none. As one can imagine, clinics in Haiti were not commonplace at the time.
And over time, he has built up an organization that people flock to from all over the country—all over the world, in fact—to work for, even as volunteers, just so that they can be associated with Farmer and his work. My daughter worked as a volunteer librarian at PIH for a while, and it as a transformative experience for her, as it is, apparently, for many people. PIH spent nearly $110 million dollars last year on health and related services around the world (check out the very impressive annual report). It concentrates on a couple of major areas–AIDS among them—but really, its central mission is to establish health care services for the very poor. It has some similarities to Doctors Without Borders, but the latter is really more of a large-scale triage operation—desperately needed as well, but a bit different in focus.
Again, where do people like this come from? Are they dropped in from another dimension from time to time, just to give the rest of us exemplars? It seems as if for every Farmer, there are thousands of Pat Robertsons and Paul Ryans, getting in the way of good work or just wasting our time, the work that has to be done to make the planet a better, more humane place, particularly for the poor. I don’t like those thousand to one odds—we need to improve them somehow. In the meantime, we should celebrate Paul Farmer and those who work alongside him, because the work he’s doing needs to be done, and perhaps wouldn’t get done at all if he weren’t doing it. And everyone should pick up five copies of Kidder’s book, keep one, and give the other four away. That’s how we keep these things going. As Niebuhr said, faith is a verb.
Image Credit: The Daily Beast