Saturday, 25 January 2014

parables in real life

My kids have been playing a super-fun game of "pass the bug" for, oh about two weeks now. They're playing Advanced Level, so there are multiple bugs in play. We've hauled the whole gang to the pediatrician twice, carted dehydrated and listless victims off to the ER both weekends and we've chatted with pediatric nurses almost daily. Some of the bugs have been named by various physicians: ear infections, bronchitis, croup, viral gastroenteritis, norovirus, rotavirus, upper respiratory viruses.... We've had Standard Daily Fevers in the 103 range and our fridge looks like a pharmacy. To those whose phone calls and texts and emails I have not returned - this is why and I am sorry.

We're wiped out.

Today a pediatric nurse (on the phone) was concerned that Bernadette might be showing symptoms of meningitis.  Just for a change of scenery, I decided to bring her in to a different hospital than the one we've been frequenting. There was nothing "wrong" at the original hospital, per se. Well, ok, the floors were filthy, the nurses hit-or-miss and one PA gave my 2 year old son a drug that our pediatrician later said ought never to be used in children due to possible psychiatric side effects. So rather than buzz two miles down the road to our neighborhood ER, I drove over to the next town to give their hospital a go. I'm so glad I did.

We walked in to cleanliness, friendliness and competence. There was an air of order and peace in the Department, our room was immaculate, the staff were remarkably kind, and Bernadette did not have meningitis. All very good things! And the last two are almost on par with one another.

Every person employed in the department was strikingly attentive, gentle and loving. Really, there is no other word I can use to describe the way they treated the two of us. Two receptionists, the triage nurse, the follow-up nurse and the doctor - all, stunningly, loving. The grand finale, though, awaited us when we "checked out". A sweet, gentle grandmotherly woman double checked all our insurance and billing information. Then she said, "Your insurance copay for today is $150, but we realize that not everybody has pots of money laying around, so you can just pay whatever you feel able to, or nothing at all."

I thought I had misunderstood her.

"Oh, so whatever I don't pay right now, you'll just send me a bill in the mail?"

No. That was not what she meant. What she meant was that I would pay what I felt able to pay and there would be no further responsibility towards my copayment.

I'm still not really sure that I am properly understanding her meaning. I have no idea if this policy is a reflection of the hospital's mission statement to treat patients in a way "rooted in our understanding of all people as created in the image of God." Maybe it has something to do with Obamacare. Maybe it's some kind of battle that hospitals and insurance companies wage between themselves. Or perhaps I'm just "not getting it" and missing something really obvious here. I do that. Often. But the minute I understood that she was apparently freeing me from any obligation to pay for the outstanding care my sick child had just received, I wanted to pay every blessed cent. 

I could have satisfied my conscience with paying far less. I had neither cash nor check on me. I did have my debit card, but I knew that there was only $25 in our checking account, with no more funds imminently available. So I dug my one credit card out of the depths of my wallet and handed it over. She looked at it for a moment and then handed it back, asking gently, "Am I reading this small print right? Does it say this card expired in August?"

It did say that. Alas. I was humiliated. I admitted as much and explained that I hadn't used it or even looked at since long before it expired. In the softest, most motherly tone possible, she sweetly said that she was glad I never used credit cards and she was doubly glad this event had not occurred when I was trying to pay for a cart full of groceries. Oh my gosh. So was I!

As the direct result of her efforts to smooth over my mortification and brush it all away as unimportant, I suddenly found myself now wanting to pay double. I felt so grateful to this tender old soul, to all the other staff we had seen during our visit, and to the hospital philosophy that had so clearly imparted this priceless charity into the attitudes of its employees. I wanted to make that gratitude abundantly clear. I wanted to repay it. I told her to send me the bill. I almost begged her to.

And then a truth I have long held came rushing into my heart once more:
That which is demanded can never be freely given.

I know that the hospital has a right to demand money for its services. This is about something bigger and deeper than the hospital. This is about the human heart being free to respond to goodness with goodness - this is about the soul's natural (if sometimes slow) desire to repay generosity with generosity. So often it does not get the chance. So often repayment is demanded. Immediately. Before the natural impulse can arise, take shape and act.

The demand kills the natural instinct.  Do it enough in a relationship and it can kill the gratitude instinct altogether.

I do this with my kids - hand them something good and then, before their little minds can even compose any kind of sincere expression of thanks, I demand, "What do you say?" 

I do this with my husband - perform some little service or sacrifice for him, and then, before he really has time to process the love that prompted the favor, I demand acknowledgment.  Did you notice that I put the trash out tonight?  Did you see that I bought you a case of your favorite beer? I may say this very lightly - casually - even lovingly - but the demand is hidden there. Say thank you. Feel grateful. Repay me. 

That which is demanded can never be freely given.

Isn't that the key to the mystery of our free will?

What is demanded cannot be freely given.

And that which is freely given is so much sweeter than that which is extracted by demand.
It's sweeter for the giver and for the recipient.
The payment of an extracted demand satisfies the cashier at the store, but not the person in relationship.

I'll pay the hospital bills for Joseph because the hospital will demand that I do so. The law of the land and my own private sense of justice will ensure that I do so. But it will not be sweet. For either side.

I'll pay the hospital bills for Bernadette because the hospital lavished love upon us and made no demand in return. Some profound, beautiful natural law will prompt me to do so. And I will write a heartfelt note to the hospital. It will be so sweet to me to be able to do so. I hope and believe it will be so sweet for the recipients as well.

I hope that I will more consistently live the moral so eloquently proclaimed to me this evening in the Parable of the Two Hospitals. I hope that with my family, my friends, my acquaintances and with strangers, I will be governed by the truth that that which is demanded can never be freely given. I hope I can let go of my petty demands and enjoy the sweetness of unprompted gratitude. And I hope that I can grow in my ability to express gratitude - abundantly and sincerely - towards those who demand, towards those who rarely demand, and towards the One who never demands.


  1. Wow, Kelly! Was it a Catholic hospital?

  2. One of them was! However, today we had to take Bernadette to see yet another doctor because her symptoms got worse and we learned that the lovely doctor from yesterday missed by a long shot in her diagnosis - she was right about the ear infection, but there was a lot more going on. Since she was less than half right, maybe now I will only pay half.... ;) jk