Uncomfortably Numb on Health Care Reform

Some of you may be familiar with Pink Floyd’s classic song “Comfortably Numb,” which appears on the album, The Wall. As I understand it, the song is about the character Pink’s battle to deal with the world as a result of abandonment and isolation. The song fits within the framework of The Wall as a concept album. Among other things expressed through the album, Pink had experienced the loss of his dad during World War II and his teachers’ hostilities growing up. These and other experiences lead him to isolate himself from the surrounding society, signified by a symbolic wall.

One may wonder how one can be comfortably numb: how can one experience comfort when one is numb? Shouldn’t the apparent comfort we experience from being numb make us “feel” quite uncomfortable? Just like Pink, the trauma we experience on account of personal abandonment in life can lead us to build walls that isolate us from society at large.

There is no seeming connection in the song “Comfortably Numb” between a medical doctor who inspects Pink and the patient himself, just as there is no connection between Pink and other authority figures on the album, such as his teachers. As I reflected upon the healthcare conference I am hosting tomorrow, I thought about the numbness many people throughout our society are experiencing presently on the subject of healthcare. The government shutdown based on infighting among our nation’s leading political authorities over Obamacare has led many to shut down emotionally and intellectually on the subject of healthcare. And while the shutdown that affected scores of people around the country was only temporary (even though the politicians still got paid!), a long-term shutdown of the federal government may be only temporarily delayed. Somehow or another, they have to bring down the partisan wall of isolation that separates the two parties in Washington, and which also separates them from the public at large.

The rest of us may also have very different views on the subject of healthcare. But we shouldn’t allow our disillusionment with Washington or the menacing and overwhelming healthcare complexities and costs shut us down from caring. Any form of numbness on these issues is a cause for feeling quite uncomfortable. We must be willing to keep pressing into taxing issues such as healthcare no matter how painful and no matter our present view on how we will eventually cover the various costs, financial, relational, and otherwise.

Doctors, patients, government officials, insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies and other businesses must not build walls of isolation from one another on the subject of healthcare. Nor must we as a public be tempted to sink beneath consciousness and become numb, refusing to listen and talk with those who represent different positions. If we shut one another out, we will eventually shut down. Quite often, numbness reflects the loss of bodily functions. Amputation or worse death can result. The best way to stay conscious and alive is to keep talking and feeling—even pain. Don’t stop feeling pain, including on the subject of healthcare. Pain is an indication that you and I and, more broadly, we as a society are still alive. If we do not feel pain in our social sickness, perhaps there is no hope that we will ever be able to address it so that we can be healed as a nation regarding public health.

This is nowhere more true than for we who claim to serve Christ, who is the ultimate wounded healer. Unlike medical doctors who seek to take away pain, spiritual doctors are those who do not anesthetize pain, but rather intensify it so that we are no longer isolated from one another in our pain; instead we share it. As Henri Nouwen wrote so profoundly, “A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away pain.  Rather, he deepens the pain to a level where it can be shared” (See Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society {New York: Image, 1979}, 92–93). Rather than become comfortably or even uncomfortably numb, let us intensify the pain of our healthcare struggle as a nation by continuing to struggle through the various healthcare challenges so that we can share in holistic and healthy change together. Only as we move beyond personal and social abandonment and isolation through shared pain will we become relationally whole.

Join me at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins’ conference on Healthcare this Saturday, October 19 to further engage these issues.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

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