I will remember the face of the man who I had not expected to see.
In suburban Johannesburg, the soil begins to turn into a rich gold color. The soil summons an enticing depth to the earth, where as Jean-Luc Nancy (1994) writes, we find existence as the cradle between our birth and our death. From our footsteps, the ancestors rise and embody the agency of new life. There is life upon death, upon death.
And this life has a heart that is vivid; a pulsation that is energising; a sound that is lulling. The suffering grows within each person as if the heart is enlarging so not to feign life; a suffering that bleeds the brightest red to signify the liveliest dance.
In Medicine; in the clinical encounter, a patient’s environment is essen(ce)-tial – where the horizon is neutral, where can we see unto, to see beyond and before the narratives of the breaths of our birth; where the spirit is sterilised, where can pain (e)rupture; where the doctor is a strange(r), where is the safety to reveal our shadows; where the walls confine death, where may we be free?
When does a patient become a patient?
At that time, I was the face of the Other. Yet, the face of the man carried an ascription that I could translate. I saw him as a ghost. I saw in his eyes where his story was carved. I saw his story as a skeleton. I saw the words fall from his shoulders, cloaking his body as it bent forwards, towards the ground, but remaining upright to carry his burdens.
I knew he had walked far. I knew the face of the man had seen the sun rise for the first time in a distant land; a land that in his fleeing, he no longer knew.
Are patients always the Other?
The face of the man did not see mine. We shared no moments. But he gave me the moments he had travelled with; the moments that he could not find a place to lose. These moments did not follow him; these moments did not haunt his dreams; these moments did not reflect into him from new moments. Instead, these moments embodied him. They were the death that he had not yet fallen into.
The face of the man was trying to become a-part from his world. His face is the narrative that Rita Charon (2008) describes as the ‘thread of the situation’, which we can reach through tracing the biological, familial, cultural, and existential stories of our struggles. If we do so, then we can engage with compassion; we can help to find our being-in-the-world once again.
* The face of the man belonged to a young Zimbabwean refugee who had walked hundreds of miles alone, crossing the border into South Africa.
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, (1994), ‘The Birth to Presence’, Stanford University Press.
2. Peter L. Rudnytsky and Rita Charon (2008), ‘Psychoanalysis and Narrative Medicine’, SUNY Press.