Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Single Story

I read a story recently about an organ transplant that went horribly wrong. It happened in a prestigious Taiwanese hospital, well established in these procedures. A patient, who was on record as an organ donor, died and blood work was done to determine his suitability. Human error ensued and, instead of his results being recorded as reactive, or HIV+, his organs were given clearance and, as a result, five people were given tainted donations. I thought about the ever widening circles of people affected: the clerk who made the original mistake, the five organ recipients and their families and friends, the surgical teams, the hospital administration; people like you and me, thousands of miles away, who read the story. It was a small human error, a miscommunication of terms, but with tragic consequences. My first thought was how could one live with themselves after making a mistake like that.

I told this story to several people, all medical personnel, and it was interesting the different reactions. The first person I told immediately felt sick at heart and went into fear of her own work and the potential for mistake. The second could only look at the bright side of the issue. She stated that those patients were at low risk and, anyhow, they were lucky to get an organ in the first place. The last person was morally outraged at the erroneous clerk and the “minions they hire these days”.

I just listened to two TED Talk by Nigerian authors Chimananda Adichie and Chris Abani. They both spoke of the dangers of what they call the “single story” — the essentialization of culture and the people within. The single story, for example, that Africa is a continent of dictatorship, strife and poverty, rather than a complex region full of multiple stories with the same contradictions, living conditions and philosophical extremes found in North America and Europe.

I thought about this when I reflected on the medical error reported above. Each person I spoke to, including myself, attached a different story to the tragedy— each perspective coloured by the individual’s unique response to life. There was deep pathos, fear, optimism, and anger. And there was my reaction to their viewpoints. I found the Pollyanna response na├»ve and judged the holder of that view to be fearful of confrontation. I deemed the outraged person to be steeped in unexpressed anger, always on the lookout for a way to vent and I thought the fearful reply to be reflective of one who was not confident in their skills. My judgment, or story, melded into their judgments or stories — it was no longer a human tale about a tragic mistake but a vehicle to condemn others or, as the case may be, ourselves.

Everyone I spoke to — each single story — was correct to some degree about this medical mishap. Yes, it was a horrible mistake but true, the organ recipients might still be better off. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale to inspire diligence but also one to encourage stronger checks and balances, and yes, it is a story of ineptitude, however singular, however chronic. Each story viewed alone gives us one perspective and through that perspective, seemingly one path of correction. Generalizations are made and a complex story is simplified into a single narrative and a platform for our beliefs. The story and the storyteller become one-dimensional.

But life isn’t like that and either are our stories. Being human, among others things, is a complex tale of erroneous beliefs, judgments, missteps and communication breakdowns. It is also about love and compassion, innocence and open-heartedness. The question is, which story will we follow, which story will we tell and which will we believe?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Human Dance

He walked up to me as I sat on the bench, enjoying the sun and the people watching. He was a thin man — “all bones” mom would say —wearing loose, well-worn clothes, dirty sneakers and a baseball cap. His movements were jerky, like those of a marionette’s puppet, and they accentuated his angular frame and the flows of unused material. He smiled. Hello, he said, going travelling? I said no, deciding against explaining the baggage sitting next to me. The packsack and suitcase belonged to a friend. She was the one travelling but had run an errand while I watched over her gear. Oh, he said, coming home then. No, I replied, returning the smile. My expression kept his hopes up, he said: Vancouver sure is a beautiful city. Yes, I said, it is.

Despite my monosyllabic answers an internal debate was raging in my head. I knew, or assumed I knew, who and what he was: a panhandler who, needing a fix, wanted money; but I also saw, or tried to see him as a person deserving of respect, polite conversation and human connection. I didn’t want to lead him on, that is, I didn’t want him to expect money at the end but I also wanted him to know that I saw him.

He asked if I was from Vancouver. Yes, and you? No, Saskatchewan. Lots of people here from the prairies, I said, better winters. His toothless smile broadened, eagerness barely hiding his anxiety.

The internal debate got heated. What was I doing? Why was I giving this man monetary aspirations when I was only going to disappoint him? I felt like the cat teasing the mouse, sadistically playing with his emotions. No, I rebutted, you are treating him like any other person you enter into conversation with, just pretend he came over because he thought you were interesting, pretty or perhaps, even lonely.

Lots of culture here, he said. Hmmm, I murmured, thought there was more on the prairies, I’ve heard Saskatoon is quite the place for the arts. No, he corrected, I mean cultures, you know, multi-cultures. Oh, yes, I agreed, we are a port city, more cultures here.

He looked over his shoulder, gums biting his lips. His eyes transversed the streets and came back to mine, making a decision. Don’t suppose you have a loonie or something you could give me? Ah, I am sorry… I have some food though, some nuts. I held out the leftovers in the bag I had. He shook his head reminding me he had no teeth. You could give me money for food, he said, the last word wavering on a high note. Shaking my head, I once more apologized. Fifty cents even? No, I can’t.

He closed his eyes for two, maybe three seconds, overcame a slight grimace, nodded and moved on. I took a deep breath. I almost called him back but he had disappeared into the crowds. I felt bad as if I mislead him somehow, made him work and then denied him wages. I don’t have a set rule regarding who and when I give money. Sometimes it’s on a whim; other times because of the pathos involved, the panhandler has creative methods or makes me laugh. I try to smile and greet whoever asks for money and usually I get a smile back but it is not easy being poor; even harder if you have an addiction. One could counter that it is not my fault he needed a fix and not my fault he lives on the street but I question whether blame is where we should focus our queries. Maybe it is more about what we value. If I value smiles and conversation between strangers, perhaps that would be given more value by the person, however destitute, that I encounter. Just maybe, if the internal debate was not raging within me, I would have been more present, more able to join in a moment of true connection. Maybe, just maybe then, he too could have, at least momentarily, forgot about his needs and joined me in a human dance that holds more value than money could ever buy.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Black Bear came to a meeting late and said, “I’m feeling frazzled after dealing with my cubs. What if don’t feel compassionate?”

Raven said, “Fake it.”

“That doesn’t seem honest,” said Black Bear.

“It doesn’t begin with honesty,” said Raven.

From: Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird