In 1897 Father Damien, a Belgian, arrived at the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii to minister to the sick. In 1884 he altered his Sunday sermon by beginning, not with his usual salutation, “You lepers…” but with a new one: “We lepers.” I remember weeping years ago when I came across that line in his biography. He’d contracted the disease and died two years later. In 2009, he was declared a saint for his martyrdom.
What we know about leprosy today, now called Hansen’s disease, is that it is “very nearly the least contagious contagious disease on earth… Ninety-five percent of us are naturally immune… and the rest have a hard time catching it.” (The Separating Sickness,” by Rebecca Solnit, Harpers, June 2013, pg. 50). The disease has been curable since 1941 when “a highly toxic tuberculosis drug, Promin, was shown to eradicate the bacterium that causes leprosy.” (Ibid, pg. 51) One of the continuing misunderstandings about the disease is that it causes horrible disfigurement where parts of the anatomy drop off. That belief is not true. According to Solnit, the damage comes largely because those who are afflicted lose their sense of pain so traumas go unattended. Father Damien discovered he was a sufferer when he accidentally stepped into a tub of boiling water and felt nothing.
Besides medicine, one of the treatments for the disease today is to teach patients how to “imagine” pain, an effort to extend awareness beyond that which can be felt. The task is difficult, which leads Paul Brand, a physician who has treated the illness for many years, to conclude that pain is central to what we mean by being human. (Ibid. pg. 55). Through pain, we learn about ourselves, our limitations and our strengths. It also allows us to imagine the pain of others, the very essence of compassion. The irony, for Brand, is that we spend our lives attempting to avoid pain and at some cost to ourselves.
We hide our prisons, our sick, our mad and our poor: we expend colossal resources to live in padded temperature-controlled environments that make few demands on our bodies or our minds. We come up with elaborate means of not knowing about the suffering of others and of blaming them when we do. (Ibid, pg. 55)
Without pain, if Brand and others are correct, few of us would be Samaritans. That’s an idea to ponder.
(Courtesy Tom Bowe’s on line scrapbook, sites.google.com)