There are the reasons I put on my application to nursing school, clacked out in a thrum of third-trimester certitude. (Judd Apatow and my crazed OBGYN professor to the contrary, pregnancy is not some sort of underscored special case of the female condition, where "the female condition" is to be a mewling, unreasonable interruption in the lives of otherwise high-functioning men such as Seth Rogan. For me -- whose brain chemistry generally resembles the workspace of a bright-but-inattentive college sophomore -- being pregnant was the closest I've come to glimpsing how people live when they aren't thrust into existential panic over their decision to buy new pants or go on vacation when no one has yet found a cure for ALS.)
According to my nursing school application, I wanted to be useful. This is true. But I said something pretty similar in my applications to law school, and, although the deans of a (small) number of Tier-I schools found those essays convincing, they really shouldn't have. In point of fact, my ability to convince Columbia to admit me to a program for which I lack every imaginable qualification beyond a generous LSAT score left me feeling so soulless and insubstantial a person that for a good fifteen minutes, it seemed to me that maybe I should be a lawyer.
The difference between nursing and law isn't that lawyers aren't useful (I guess; to be honest, I still have a blurry picture in my mind of what, exactly, lawyers do). For me, the compelling distinction -- that is, the distinction that compels me to stay in nursing school despite all the shitty-feeling new manners of growth that nursing entails -- is that nursing attends to bodies, and bodies have been my issue, my preoccupation, for most of my life.
Basically, my deal is this: I am terrified of pain, and I am terrified to die, and I am, more deeply than anything else, terrified that my body truly is all the awful things I have imagined it to be at various points in my life. These fears settle in different parts of my body and mind, moving in and out of my way, depending on dumb luck, my spiritual practice, the time of day and how well I am sleeping and whether or not I've overdone it with the coffee this week.
This is my experience in a body that is privileged in every way except (maybe) gender, a body that, today, is healthy and able and basically young. To deal with these fears, for it to mean anything when I tell myself it's okay, I need for it to be okay, not just for me, in my body now, but for people whose bodies aren't working, people who can't care for themselves, people for whom pain and disability and death are not abstractions or morbid little fantasies.
And from what I've seen, much, much too often, it's not okay. The same way life is not okay for people who are poor, life is totally not okay for a huge number of people who are sick, disabled, dying, old.
It is not okay that the children I see (maybe) one day a week at the nursing home spend their lives mostly bored, lonely, and in pain.
It is not okay that people sit in their own shit, lie howling like animals in their beds, spend their first or last hours on earth in pain that could be managed, but isn't.
It isn't okay with me that one's quality of life is determined by how well one's body happens to work right now. It shouldn't really be okay with anyone: of all possible forms of inequality, the disempowerment of the sick, of the old, of the disabled, makes the least sense, since almost everyone will ultimately fall into one or all of those classes.
And I don't know what to do. Poverty is visible; my reasons for not doing more about it are overwhelmingly just the basic, run-of-the mill personal failings I always mean to overcome and almost never do. Kids are dying of malaria, but those kids are far away; Sushi Tatsu and Starbucks and Target are all so much closer.
One of the reasons why so many people live the way they do, here, in a country where the standard of living almost seems like a parody of itself at times, is because it is sometimes very hard to gain access to the places where these people are kept. You pretty much have to be a nurse; doctors are often accused of treating the body rather than the patient, but right now the expectation seems to be more that they treat the disease, not the body.
How your body feels, how it looks to you, whether and where and how it eats and sleeps and shits -- to meet you in any of those places, I have to be your nurse. No one else really gets access there. And so no one else is in the same position to affirm, right now, in this moment: it is okay. You don't have to be in pain right now. Your body, your life, is not garbage to be thrown out or ignored or hidden -- not now, while you are living, and not later, while you are dead. However invisible you may feel, whatever has been taken from you or done to you, you are still valuable.
In just one of the many chapters of My Impasses with Atheism, a friend and I fell out over whether or not it is meaningful to say that a person has intrinsic value, if that person has no one to value them. Because I believe in a God who is omniscient, I say with conviction that everyone has value. (While I think there are atheists who would agree with this, my friend isn't one of them.) More than my need to believe in an afterlife or in the inherent goodness of the world, I think, this is what compels my faith. I'm unable to shake the belief that everyone, even my patients who cannot speak or move or respond, who hold precisely no capital as most of us understand it, are valuable, are lovable, and that the world is only as it should be when they are being treated accordingly.
This belief is why nursing, and not law or teaching or management. Because there are people who matter, who have value, and to whom the only useful response to that value at this moment is to push morphine, to knead the spasms out of their neck, to care whether or not they are eating. Because my faith, however mustard-seedlike, is largely wrapped up in my belief that I am to love those around me, and this is the kind of love I understand best: the kind that keeps its mouth shut and goes about its business.