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Paul Farmer

October 12, 2010

I’m not entirely clear on what legally counts as fair use of copyrighted content in this situation, but I’m going to excuse what I’m about to do by strongly plugging the book from which the following excerpt comes: Tracy Kidder’s amazing biography of Paul Farmer, called “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” I want you to read it. If you don’t have a way to borrow it, I want you to buy it. Hell, I’ll buy it for you: just add it to your Amazon wishlist, send me the link, and I will seriously pay for it. Happy birthday (This offer also includes any Cloud Cult cd). It will inspire you and rock your world, or at least it should.

The following is one of my favorite passages in the entire book. It is a perfect definition of my mentality and motivation, summing up why I want to do what I want to do. It’s not idealism, it’s not sacrifice; it’s the only way I know of to deal with the pressure that has built up in my head (and it’s probably not healthy, but hey, that’s never stopped me).

He told me he slept about four hours a night but a few days later confessed: “I can’t sleep. There’s always somebody not getting treatment. I can’t stand that.”

Little sleep, no investment portfolio, no family around, no hot water… I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, “If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to become a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.” He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: “I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world  where some people can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. Comma.”

This was for me one of the first of many encounters with Farmer’s use of the word comma, placed at the end of a sentence. It stood for the word that would follow the comma, which was asshole. I understood he wasn’t calling me one–he would never do that; he was almost invariably courteous. Comma was always directed at third parties, at those who felt comfortable with the current distribution of money and medicine in the world. And the implication, of course, was that you weren’t one of those. Were you?

Paul Farmer is my hero, my idol, my impossible blueprint for an ideal life. You should check out his organization Partners in Health, and strongly consider supporting it if you can.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kaelee permalink
    October 26, 2010 11:11 PM

    OMG. Reading his Pathologies of Power book right now for class. Bearing witness and liberation theology are the new cultural relativity, I swear.

    And good to hear your staying for the year. Very bold, sir. I never weighed in, but I figured you would make the right choice! The internship alone will be a pivotal resume builder/building block to you as a person. Now go off and help people already.


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