Last weekend I was soaking in some high altitude sun at the annual Bluegrass and Beer Festival in Keystone, Colorado. The atmosphere was filled with wide smiles, hearty conversation, and generally good vibrations. But I was often uncomfortable being among a clearly privileged crowd. It tugged at my affinity to feel guilty. My good fortunes weren’t enough to erase visions of one friend trapped by war and other by poverty because I had just finished reading Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.”
The book is about Paul Famer and Partners in Health, a non-profit health care organization that aims “to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.” It easily touched my nerves as I seem to be among the one in five that fit a category known as highly sensitive people (HSP). And sensitivity is a trait that easily migrates toward empathy and guilt.
“I feel it’s part of my job to make the problems of the poor compelling,” Farmer has said. That message came through loud and clear as Kidder described Farmer’s success story. It’s an incredible journey of a dedicated physician who began a medical practice to treat patients in the poverty stricken nation of Haiti.
In 1987 Farmer formed Partners in Health with the help of two other Americans and Jim Yong Kim, another physician who enlisted in the cause and is now President of the World Bank. Within a few years they were treating more than 100,000 Haitians. They eventually showed the entire would how people with tuberculosis could be cured through home care efforts one hundred times less expensively than in an American hospital.
Partners in Health now has programs all over the globe. Closest to home is Boston’s Prevention and Access to Care and Treatment project. It has resulted in a 16 percent net savings in Medicaid claims and a 35 percent reduction in length of stay and inpatient costs. In our money-centric world those easy to grasp figures reveal how all of society benefits when poor people are granted equal rights, in this case, in terms of health care.
Farmer was well on his way to fame before Kidder’s book was published. But the act of sharing Farmer’s story also reveals the author’s own journey to embracing the cause.
“The world is full of miserable places” he mused at the end of the first chapter. “One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money.” Later, in a passage that isn’t likely to resonate with the 80 percent who aren’t highly sensitive, he comes to accept the central heart of Farmer’s social philosophy – that there is a “direct relation between the massive accumulation of wealth in one part of the world and abject misery of another.”
For some, this is pure socialist nonsense. Economic inequality is not a problem to solve but rather is a product of a solid work ethic and the competitive nature of human beings. That’s not the argument I want to engage in though. Rather, I’m wondering what the societal role is for the minority who weigh in on the sensitive side of the scale.
Elaine Aron is the psychologist who popularized the HSP trait with her bestselling book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.” Her research reveals that successful cultures were usually governed by two classes of people, “the warrior kings and the priestly advisers,” that latter being highly sensitive philosophers, judges, artists, theologians, and “plain conscientious citizens.”
Our society has plenty of clergymen and women and socially conscious individuals speaking out on behalf of the poor and less fortunate. And although our calls for social justice are easily blown aside by the strong American winds of competitive individualism, Farmer teaches us how to expand our breath into generous action.
We don’t need to be superheroes like him though. In fact, he warns against engaging in the ego’s pursuit of fame. Whether in the field of health care or ensuring people have adequate food and shelter, serving others must begin and remain anchored by a simple truth – being poor doesn’t make a person’s life less valuable than ours or anyone else’s.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.