In Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, what is "the long defeat" for Dr. Farmer and why is it so important to him?
Dr. Paul Farmer, a dedicated humanitarian and physician who has devoted his life to providing medical care for the world’s poor, is affiliated with a nonprofit humanitarian organization called Partners in Health, abbreviated in Tracy Kidder’s biography of Farmer Mountains Beyond Mountains as “pih,” and that organization’s employees as “pih-ers.” The reason for this little bit of background is because it provides context for Farmer’s use of the phrase “the long defeat” in one of his conversations with the author. Kidder is accompanying Farmer on a hike and the two are discussing a decision the latter had made to spend $20,000 of Partners in Health’s money to transport a terminally ill patient to the United States for treatment. This money constituted an enormous sum for such an organization to dedicate to one patient who didn’t even survive the medical procedure for which he was conveyed to Boston, Massachusetts. An unidentified “pih-er” had commented to Kidder that the $20,000 had essentially been wasted and could have done so much more good than the purpose to which Farmer put it. Farmer, in response, states the following:
“How about if I say, I have fought for my whole life a long defeat. How about that? How about if I said, that’s all it adds up to is defeat? . . .I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing.”
What Farmer means is that he has dedicated his life to fighting what is best labeled ‘the good fight.’ In generic terms, that phrase – ‘the good fight’ – refers to struggles waged because one is convinced it’s the right thing to do irrespective of the prospects for success. The challenge of prevailing in the cause of righteousness may be insurmountable, but the fight is worth waging anyway because it’s the right thing to do. Farmer has simply inverted the language. He is sufficiently realistic or pragmatic to understand that he is going to lose bureaucratic battles as well as those waged against disease and apathy. In his world of trying to heal the sick in the world’s most destitute places, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and there will definitely be setbacks along the way. In fact, Farmer is suggesting, the setbacks are the norm and the successes the aberration.