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April 18, 2013 at 9:24 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Which Way Will You Run?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This week, we watched the chaos in Boston as two bombs brought tragedy to the city's famous marathon. The airwaves and social media lit up with analysis and commentary. The event was recanted with lauding remarks on how some ran instinctively toward the commotion in order to help. Tenacity and service were heralded, and the words of Mr. Rogers brought us comfort:

"When I was a boy and I saw scary things, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

This week, I gathered with a small group of medical students to reflect on the history of medicine. One of our topics was the bubonic plague, a disaster which rocked 14th century Europe, annihilating 1/3 to 1/2 of its people The group imagined ourselves as doctors during this time. Not much was known about the disease at the time, other than that it was deadly and highly contagious, but history tells us that some doctors fled while some others stayed and tended the sick at great personal risk. We wondered what we would have done given the circumstances? What would we do if faced with a similar situation today? We each considered whether we were of the same metal as the "helpers" referred to by Mr. Rogers.

I've done a lot of thinking about such people today. They walk among us, both known and unknown, a cut apart. What separates and elevates these people? Is it a mindset? Is it a job? What helpers do I see in my day-to-day life not ripped with tragedy? The essence, I believe, is that helpers place others before themselves on numerous levels. And I believe that there is nothing more honorable than an act that puts another before self.  In truth, any of us could be called to the test at any time.

Here's to the nurse that helped me without asking when I struggled filling a printer with paper today. Here's to the woman I saw helping a wheelchair-bound person onto the elevator. Here's to the people who picked up the chairs after a meeting. And here's to the military, police, and firefighters who put themselves in harm's way for the benefit of others. They saw a need and gave of themselves to fill it. 

As a parent, I sincerely hope that my children will develop these qualities. I challenge them to look at their lives in a vectoral fashion, a sum of pluses and minuses. At the culmination of their lives, those positives and negatives are going to add up to a number that will either be in the red or the black. I ask them to consider whether they will leave the world in better or worse condition at the end of their run. I challenge them to look at every little thing, from the trash they produce to the impact they have on others. I can't help but think that daily practice of such little acts leads to the instinctive behavior demonstrated by those courageous people in Boston who ran toward rather than away. 

In this world, we have helpers and destroyers. How ironic is it that in horrific events such as Boston we see the poles of each side? There will always be good and there will always be bad. Accepting this dichotomy can bring peace. Embracing the good and working to create more of it can bring resilience in times where destruction is present.

This week, I challenge you to examine your mindset on this topic. As the sun sets on your day, who came first? How will you leave the world you live in? Will you run toward darkness, chaos, and need as a helper?

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