I was in physician assistant school earning a degree in medicine when I first heard the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” There’s disagreement about who said it first, so it’s difficult to know who to attribute it to, but the words stuck with me as I began clinical rotations.
At the time, I looked at the world through a black-and-white lens. I was kind to people who “deserved” it, and harsh with people who didn’t.
The woman who was raped, the child who was abused, the man whose legs were crushed in an industrial accident -- all of them were ill and suffering through no fault of their own, and so I was endlessly kind to them.
But other patients, like the heroin addict who kept ending up in the ICU from drug overdoses, the 22-year-old woman who was on her fifth pregnancy because she refused to use contraception, the smoker who needed an oxygen tank because he refused to quit smoking -- these were the patients to whom I was not kind. I was annoyed with their choices and I was impatient when helping to ameliorate the consequences of their poor choices. Often, my discussions with them about their treatment plans included a stern lecture about why they’d ended up this way.
Soon after I graduated, I was called in on my day off to see patients for the family practice doctor I worked with, who had gone to the hospital to deliver a baby. By the time I got ready and drove to the clinic, most patients had been waiting more than an hour past their scheduled appointment time.
I went into the exam room to talk to a 50-year-old woman who was there for insomnia. As soon as I walked through the door, she snapped at me. She was angry at the wait time, angry that she was seeing me instead of her usual physician….and then she began to insult me and the office decor and the front desk staff and anything else she could think of. In spite of how many times I apologized, she persisted in her vitriolic comments.
I wanted to retaliate, to push back, to defend myself, to tell her to just leave if she was going to keep complaining. But thankfully at just the right time, the quote came to mind. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
If that quote was true, this woman must’ve been fighting one heck of a hard battle, and I decided to find out what it was.
I sat down next to her and gently put my hand on her knee.
“How are you really doing?” I asked her.
And she fell into my arms, sobbing.
The reason she’d scheduled an appointment for her insomnia was that one week ago, she was sitting on the couch with her healthy 55-year-old husband watching TV, and he collapsed onto the floor and died of a heart attack right in front of her. She called 911, but by the time they got there, he was gone.
She was traumatized that she’d watched him die, guilt-ridden that she hadn’t seen it coming, hadn’t known what to do to revive him, hadn’t made him a doctor’s appointment for a physical because they both had been too busy.
As I held her and listened to her pour out her pain, I thanked God that I hadn’t responded harshly to her crusty exterior. That God had prompted me to be kinder to her than I thought she deserved, to give her grace that I didn’t know she needed.
After that encounter, my approach to patients completely changed. The angrier they were, the gentler I became. The less kindness I felt like giving them, the more kindness I asked God to help me show them. Instead of scolding patients, I listened to them. Instead resenting them for the extra work their poor choices made for me, I told them I was glad to see them. I began to motivate them with love instead of lectures.
“We need to get you healthier,” I told them . “Because you’re special, and the world only gets one of you.”
As I’ve shown others kindness, I’ve been reminded of what Romans 2 says, that it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. He doesn’t goad or manipulate or threaten us; He woos us with love and with kindness. And it’s because of that kindness that we’re drawn out of darkness and into the light of repentance. It’s because of that kindness that we can be filled with the Spirit, who goes with us into the world to shine that same light into the darkest corners. And it’s that Spirit that gives us the wisdom and the grace to encounter people who are fighting hard battles and offer to fight for them, not against them.