The Realization of Harm cover image

The Realization of Harm

I recently spoke to a few hundred medical students about to enter the daunting phase of working directly with patients. My presentation explored the mistreatment of the gender-expansive community by current medical providers. The school, aware that its students have significantly different life experiences than the patients they'll be treating, hosts a yearly forum to expose attendees to various types of diversity. Mine was just one of numerous lectures on diversity.

Secular medical schools don't invite me to present on gender diversity and inclusion. Their core curriculum already includes in-depth insights and training to understand human identity, biological gender diversity, and the characterological experience of gender. Gender diversity, whether the experience is one of identity or biology, is already accepted as an evidence-based science by the students in those programs.

Non-secular programs that refuse to include curriculum or dialogue on gender diversity (apparently, and sadly) believe their students will never have to treat people with a nonbinary gender experience.

Non-secular programs that acknowledge their students will work with patients of varying beliefs and backgrounds are my sweet spot, and I welcomed the invitation from my alma mater.

The Presentation

I had all my facts and figures lined up; the material was information I've presented to large rooms dozens of times. I would have a chance to make life a little easier for gender-expansive people with the knowledge I was going to drop in that room. I was ready to go.

And then, nothing. I couldn't get the words out of my mouth. I had been interrupted by palpable energy but didn't know why or from where it radiated.

That day was my first time on a campus dedicated to science with pictures of Jesus in nearly every hallway for more than two years. I scanned myself to identify if there was some internal conflict with my presentation. Was it that? Some disconnect between faith and science? No.

The answer came after another brief moment of reflection. I realized the energy of swagger oozing from the students was not in harmony with what I had hoped to convey. And in a moment of quiet reflection, I looked into the crowd hoping to find a compatible purpose for the dialogue. I found it: my presentation needed to change from one of science to one of personal pain, survival, and joy. The only way to connect with those who think they know it all is to show them they don't know me.

After regaining my composure and acknowledging that I (assuredly) exuded a similar arrogance when I was in the chairs these students now occupied, I finished my presentation. But unlike my typical and intended presentation filled with research, I shared my personal story of identity denial and acceptance. I talked about the times when death was a palatable option. I shared the joy I felt letting go of deeply rooted prejudices I held and the positive impact of serving a community I had spent most of my life fearing/hating. I made the presentation personal, allowing me to avoid the inevitable contention from debating conservative medical students laden with hubris, alt-right pseudoscience, and anecdotal hearsay.

Time For Questions

Following the presentation, I opened the floor to questions. Egotism quickly deflates in a room full of other intelligent people. Nobody wanted to ask a question. Perhaps they were scared of looking dumb or bigoted in front of others. Perhaps the concept was so new to them (and it was for many of them) that they didn't know where to start. Fortunately, we had a system set up to accept anonymous questions. There were many.

Most questions asked were sincere, even when rooted in ignorance and prejudice. Months later, one such question lingers in my mind, "I know all gender-diverse people are suicidal and depressed. What's the best way to let patients know I'm aware of their mental health issues?" I remember hearing that question and thinking - at least something got through to this kid as he's aware that some people struggle. I walked that question back and let him know it was best to focus on the patient's stated concern.

Then it came. The question I dreaded was curiously also the most sincere question of the day. "How can we as doctors balance our faith and medical best practices that contradict what we believe?" She had perfectly voiced the human dilemma of having to function in a world riddled with moral ambiguities while holding specific Christian beliefs.

I was nervous about this question because I'd recently experienced firsthand the harm religion can cause. I've seen religions protect those who belong behind bars and place their public image ahead of the health and well-being of their congregants. Religions often blame victims instead of accepting responsibility for their horrific actions. And I've witnessed my community become cannon-fodder as religions need to find a socially acceptable marginalized group to demonize to galvanize their congregants and liberate dollars from their followers.

I was ready to unleash a scathing retort on those who think their beliefs prohibit the treatment of people in need. I had just gotten a softball tossed my way and was about to crank it out of the park and reveal their belief of moral superiority over those they fear is a damaging delusion.

I felt myself taking a deep breath, looking at the audience, and remembering that I'm incapable of changing somebodies beliefs.

I took another breath and thought, "this group of future doctors needs to hear my hurt." Another breath.

Of all the times I had tried to convince others that their beliefs were harming, not once has somebody ever said, "oh, you're right. I have been harming others, and I'll stop." That type of humbling takes years to achieve and can come to those who genuinely desire to learn cultural humility and gain enlightened awareness.

Still standing silently in front of that room, I realized I needed to put my weapons down and speak from a place most people have never been. And while my reply may still have been hard for some to hear, it was honest and without any feelings of malice towards whatever religion people in that room affiliated.

This Was My Reply

I suppose it would be easy to say that your beliefs are irrelevant when treating the person in front of you. They aren't. While it has become socially acceptable to deride religion as hokum, your beliefs, rooted in faith, have driven the majority of you to achieve the skills needed to serve others, cure illness, and save lives. Your beliefs have instilled in you a purpose and an understanding that even a stranger is inherently worthy of compassion, care, and healing.

I can't speak to your various beliefs or faith traditions. I can tell you that balancing what you know to be true and what you know to be right is a lifelong endeavor worthy of all your available energy to pursue.

Each of us is on a personal journey, and it's not my place to impose my faith on another. It's my place to ask other travelers how to help them on their way. I sometimes wonder if The Good Samaritan asked the traveler what he needed before he rendered aid. I digress.

I can only speak about my own experience balancing my beliefs with my clinical practice. What I've learned is there is no such thing. Either you believe your responsibility is to serve humanity, or you do not.

Though it may be difficult to believe or comprehend, I now understand that I spent the first thirty years of my life harming people I've never met. I spent that same amount of time bullying, belittling, and marginalizing those around me.

My religion taught me that those who do not look like me, love like me, or believe like me, are damned.

I was unaware the so-called truth I held was the catalyst for hate and oppression. The absolute truth was this: the organization I belonged to sought to prohibit or take away the rights of others. They spent more than a century teaching its members that people of color are inherently cursed. And to this day, they state that possessing the capacity to love another, regardless of sex, is a sign of moral weakness.

I answered the call of my religion to prevent equality and fundamental human rights from being shared amongst all humans. I campaigned to prevent loved ones from being able to see each other in the final moments of their lives. I regurgitated church doctrine that has no other purpose than convince those who are different that they are not worthy of life. I did this because I didn't know any better and still believed what was true and what was right were the same thing.

Where, in the dogma of your religion, does it say not to serve another in distress? Where in your faith does it say we must remove the option of free will for another and that we must decide what is best for another person? Though it may be a less commonly practiced belief, any religion that seeks to compel its definition of moral behavior is no longer a religion, they are an institution that has chosen power and subservience.

The Realization of Harm

If you consider yourself a Christian and cannot acknowledge that your faith has caused harm, I invite you to look back into the history of your faith.

Evidence is easy to find of extremism within all major religions. Look no further than the Ku Klux Klan's perversion of Christianity or the radical perversion of Islam to sanction acts of terrorism. Both religions teach peace, but peace is hard to find while prejudice envelopes us. Such extremes may cause you to consider only those rare elements that cause harm. It's not.

Mainstream believers also cause harm in much more significant and impactful ways. Historically, look no further than the crusades to see mass casualties resulting from mainstream beliefs.

Today, millions of people vote in the name of their beliefs to exterminate the queer community. Look as mainstream believers seek to ban books, ban marriage, and impose their beliefs on others to the point that women no longer have bodily autonomy.

Even in the US, it's rapidly becoming an accepted platform for Christianity to be taught in public education. Any objective observer would recognize this as taking away the very thing all believers should stand up for: the right to believe in something else.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you have participated in harming others. You're now aware. What are you going to do with that information? Might I suggest putting it to good use? Find the group of people you are most uncomfortable with, and serve them. Invite them into your homes. Welcome their condemnation of your acts. Listen. If you can't handle condemnation for how you've hurt another, then it was you who was damned all along.

© 2024 · Dr. Corinne Votaw-Freer · All Rights Reserved · Privacy Policy