Homelessness Lessons Medicine NYC Observations Reflection Seattle

The Kind of Energy We Send Out to the World.

I have been writing; I just haven’t posted anything here. These days, it seems that we cannot escape increasing types of noise and their loud volumes. It’s not all noise, but the signals are overwhelming.

It was a busy teaching week for me: I had the privilege to speak at two community clinics and a public hospital. In all three presentations I commented on the tension between “the system” and our efforts as individuals. When we’re trying to provide care and services to individuals, sometimes the constraints of “the system” interfere with our efforts: Sometimes fiscal concerns reign supreme; sometimes the bureaucracy is inflexible; sometimes the system does not have noble intentions. We grumble, we get angry, we feel helpless.

When we’re trying to design “the system” to provide care and services, sometimes the constraints of people interfere with our efforts: Sometimes there aren’t enough people; sometimes people make mistakes; sometimes people do not have noble intentions. We grumble, we get angry, we feel helpless.

The two, of course, are related: People design systems. People work within systems. People can change systems.

People also have values. Sometimes we find that our values clash with those of the systems we work and live in. That doesn’t mean that we must defer to the values of the system. It takes courage to resist. To show our values to the world without flinching is an act of bravery.

While speaking, I told a story about my first boss when I finally started working as an attending psychiatrist. Our jobs included working with people who were homeless in New York City.

“I want people who don’t have a place to live to get excellent care,” he said, perhaps talking more to himself than to me. “Good care shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to pay a psychiatrist who works out of a plush office on Park Avenue. People who don’t have money should have access to and get good care, too.”

“These are choices under our control,” I said to the audience yesterday, perhaps talking more to myself than to them. “Even though system pressures are very real, you can choose to give good care to the people who come here for help. You can treat people with dignity and respect, particularly if they are people of color with very low incomes. They might not get dignity or respect elsewhere.”

Perhaps my exhortations sound naive. Perhaps cynicism will triumph over virtue. However, I refuse to embrace cynicism. Cynicism makes for terrible company. Life is already full of challenges; we do not need negative soundtracks to accompany us as we travel through life. What we do affects others. What we say can inspire others.

We have responsibility for the kind of energy we send out to the world.