In his nonfiction study Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder writes in Chapter 22 that Dr. Farmer embraces “a continuity and interconnectedness that excluded no one.” What does he mean by this and how does he think this guides Farmer’s life choices?
It is impossible to live the kind of life Dr. Paul Farmer has lived without making sacrifices, not just of the material kind, but sacrifices of the personal kind as well. In his biography of Dr. Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World,” Tracy Kidder delves into his subject’s personal life to attempt to gain a better understanding of what drives or motivates an individual to so single-mindedly pursue a mission of global mercy at the cost of personal relationships. Physicians have moral and professional responsibilities or requirements to remain current in their field of study. That requires frequent attention to the academic side of the equation, as all physicians are required to remain abreast of developments in medical techniques and technologies as well as in medications intended to relieve or address various conditions. Balancing this academic burden with the pressures of maintaining a profitable medical practice is difficult for most physicians. For physicians who have dedicated their lives to administering to the world’s poor in places like Haiti, Russia, and Central America, the challenge is much greater. For physicians as dedicated as Farmer, those challenges are greater still.
In Chapter 22 of his book, Kidder focused on the manner in which his subject, Dr. Farmer, was able to sustain a family in a loving, caring environment. Farmer is presented as entirely committed to his mission of aiding the indigent, but he also has a wife and three children (although much of the book focuses on the first child, Catherine). Having delivered a stillborn baby to one of his desperately poor patients, Farmer found himself weeping only to realize it was because he was visualizing his own daughter, Catherine, in that state. He then proceeds to castigate himself for loving his own child more than these poor children of other mothers. A perfectly “normal” reaction to a horrible event is met with recrimination. Farmer is so psychologically motivated to deliver medical care to the world’s poor, a particularly frustrating challenge when he observes governments and international organizations doing far less than they could or should be doing, that he questions his own commitment because of a father’s love for his child. Summarizing Farmer’s attitude, Kidder observes that the physician-humanitarian is incapable of making the choices regarding commitment of time, resources and compassion that most other’s routinely make: “Of all the world’s errors, he seemed to feel, the most fundamental was the ‘erasing’ of people, the ‘hiding away’ of suffering. ‘My big struggle is how people can not care, erase, not remember’.” It is to this comment on the part of Farmer that Kidder writes, “I wondered if there was room for anybody in his philosophy for anyone but the world’s poor and people who campaigned on behalf of the poor.”
To what Kidder is alluding is Farmer’s ability to balance his social and professional commitments to the legitimate needs of his own family. It is in this context that the author writes the following:
“Embracing a continuity and interconnectedness that excluded no one seemed like another of Farmer’s peculiar liberties. It came with a lot of burdens, of course, but it also freed him from the efforts that many people make to find refuge and distinction from their pasts, and from the mass of their fellow human beings.”
Farmer has refused to prioritize with regard to family versus medical practice. He has refused to consider his own family as morally or practically more important than those he seeks to help in the slums of Haiti and Peru or the prisons of Russia. He really does view the world in holistic terms, and prioritizes on the basis of need, not of personal bonds. For Farmer, this is liberating; he has placed himself and his family in a broader framework of a common humanity.