Whereabouts Unknown

Even before the tragedy at Sandy Hook had occurred, I was aware this year that my holiday spirit had largely gone wandering for parts unknown. And as I watched the appalling news unfold, scooting into my office to tap the news feed in between seeing patients, what little joy I had in this year's season was entirely squelched by by the horror visited on Newtown.

As one patient had put it just a few days earlier, "Dr. Jenkins, this is the first place I've been to in weeks that isn't all decked out in Christmas." I think he was grateful for the respite, and so, frankly, was I. So the lack of holiday lighting, the absence of festive glitter, the avoidance of celebratory music on the office sound system, were all a part to provide a reprieve for those of us who, for whatever reason, felt overburdened by the season.

My reasons for feeling a little Grinch-like this year have been many. Aside from the obvious sadness of recent events, this year has been one of great struggle.

Having been in practice for nearly two decades now, I'm used to the unavoidable disappointments that come with my profession, one in which great distance between patient and doctor is impossible if one is to get the job done properly. But I was particularly saddened when a couple of my patients were struck by sudden, severe downturns in their health, ones which exceeded my skills or that of any other physician. These are people for whom I'd doctored for many years, and it is hard not to become attached to such people in your life, particularly when they are individuals of great worth.

Normally I am a rather ecumenical friend of religion, regarding religion -- any religion -- as my partner in helping to secure greater health for my patients, and often enlisting it to our mutual advantage. But the events of this year, both in this country and abroad, have highlighted for me the capacity for danger that religion innately possesses. Religion is the nuclear energy of the human spirit. When harnessed appropriately, it can create light and warmth that spreads beyond the individual, enabling him to shelter others in the illumination of his humanity.

At the same time, religion, like nuclear fission, creates waste which can be severely toxic and will last for generations, as it has in Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. And at its worst, religion, like an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, can lay devastation and waste over great swaths of our collective spiritual and political landscape. It is hard not to look at the damage caused to thousands upon thousands of lives by religious leaders, either by taking utterly immoral advantage of their charges or by re-asserting slavery for half of humanity, and not only be appalled at the carnage, but also moved at the enormous loss of potential, the wasted spiritual capital left to spiral down the drain of iniquity.

Finally, I am a man who derives much of his strength from the natural environment around him. Little to me is more uplifting than a sojourn, short or long, in the woods, on the water, along a mountainous path, or even (or perhaps especially) taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the landscape about me as I pedal my way through this world, feeling absolutely sanctified to be able to experience it in that unique way that only another pedestrian or cyclist can understand.

And to this man of science and nature, it is absolutely clear that the environment is in great upheaval, one which has been caused by, and which does not bode well for, our species. Mother Nature is indeed angry, and all too few of us are cognizant of the enormous price our children are about to pay for our willful ignorance.

All of these thoughts weigh heavy on my mind and my spirit this morning, a time in which many throughout the western world celebrate family and friends, revel in the delighted squeals of children opening presents. And the thought of such pleasures does make me smile. Whether you are celebrating the birth of your savior Jesus Christ, or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the return of the unconquerable sun, Yule's return of the horned hunter, or the endless light of Hanukkah, this is the time to see the light in the darkness and to bask in the warmth of those around us.

Yet, to borrow from the metaphor of Christianity, within each of us is that part which has not yet arrived at the warmth of the creche. As the wise men struggled through the darkness, seeking purity while bearing the meagre gifts of their imperfection, so does each of us seek the perfect within us with often the dullest of tools and the dimmest of torches.

But if we take care of ourselves and one another, that path may not be as rocky, or as steep, as it might appear. The sun will rise again, and each day -- not just this one -- gives us another opportunity to rise above ourselves and be, not only who we are, but who we could be.

I'm on that road, too, and I'll be looking for you.

My Christmas Gifts

Probably the best thing about this holiday, in my mind, is that it gives us all the opportunity to be grateful. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, when you spend your time being grateful, you don't have a lot of room in your life for stuff like anger, or fear, or jealousy. It's hard to be grateful and angry simultaneously. Try it. See? Weird, it just can't happen. So I'm feeling really grateful today, as I sit and type this beside a wood stove cranking out the heat and eating a clementine. I'm grateful for the warmth of the stove. The children upstairs still sleeping. The deliciously healthful food made possible by a civilization which, for all of its many faults, gives me the capability to eat an orange in the middle of a cold New England winter. And I'm very grateful to the patient who brought me the fruit.

It is always somewhat surprising to me, when holiday season comes around, and patients bring such wonderful gifts to share with Teresa and me.  Diets be damned, they say, and bake with abandon, creating the most  delicious concoctions enticing me to keep my energy up with a quick midday sugar fix. Or two. Or three. (Hmm. I'm pretty sure I'll be doing the Center's New Decade - New Me weight loss program in lead-by-example format!). I am touched by these gifts, as I know that they signify my importance in their lives. And when I realize that, I am immediately humbled and awed by the trust which my patients place in me.

There were two gifts this year which particularly moved me.

One of my patients, whom I know is no stranger to philanthropy, took her largesse to an entirely new level this year. In honor of me, she said, she gave the gift of a cataract operation (through Seva, a charity devoted to restoring sight and preventing blindness in the developing world)  so that another person might see again. When she told me, it brought tears to my eyes. To be the inspiration for such magnaminity is overwhelming. Thank you, Joan.

Another gift came in the form of an email from a grateful patient whose holiday was brightened by a new addition to the family -- whose presence, she said, was the result of the care which I provided.  I was deeply moved by her thanks as well, and reminded of the joy I experienced many years ago when my first child arrived.

So has it been a good Christmas? You bet! New eyes, new life, tasty treats and fruits and honey. My cup runneth over.

I hope your Christmas has been equally  joyful.