Who over what

My friend Frank Clark, a person of deep faith and a gifted psychiatrist, co-led a webinar on suicide prevention for the Outlook a few months ago and one sentence from that hour and a half presentation still sticks with me. In describing the process of meeting a patient for the first time – often in crisis, often in an emergency room setting – he talked about the importance of listening and discovering the person’s story, their family situation, their fears and more. Medical symptoms need to be covered, my friend said, “but who I am treating is more important than what I am treating.”

The person, not the diagnosis, matters most. The who, the human being, deserves to be heard, respected and honored. The what will be addressed. A plan for appropriate care will be constructed and acted upon, but first the whole person must be seen, heard and offered compassion. 

Frank’s short sentence contains an expansive wisdom — not just for physicians, but for all of us. No person is a problem to be solved; each is an image of God, a divine mystery to be entered with holy curiosity and sacred care. The who before the what. Not homeless first, human first. Not patient first, person first. Not label first, loved child of God first. Not behavior first, blessed first.

I learned the importance of seeing each person as unique, gifted and valuable from my physician father. The only doctor in a small, rural town, we never ventured to the store, school or post office without someone stopping to ask him about a pain, report on the progress of an illness or ask about the side effects of a medication. Occasionally, there would be a knock on our door just as we sat down to dinner. More than once he left a family gathering abruptly to go deliver a baby or head to the hospital for an emergency. In all of those years, in countless interactions, never once did he exhibit anything other than attentive patience and care. 

His signature question, which I heard posed more times than I can count, was: “So, tell me, what’s going on?” He gently asked this to stressed-out young mothers worried about a baby’s cough, to an agitated man who arrived at our door experiencing troubling voices, to elderly folk with vivid descriptions of the disturbing side effects caused by the medicine he prescribed. Always, in every interaction, the who was more important than the what. 

When my friend Frank voiced his heartfelt conviction (“Who I am treating is more important than what I am treating”) I knew exactly what such sentiment looked like. I pictured my dad. I remembered equanimity at whatever was presented, his unflappable ability to listen without judgment, his willingness to meet people wherever they were physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. 

Early in my ministry when I made hospital visits or a troubled church member mustered up the courage to come to my office, I emulated my dad. I would ask, “So, tell me, what’s going on?” Remarkably, they did, entrusting me with burdens, worries, regrets, rock bottom hopes, telling me who they were. I pray I held and honored and stewarded their stories with grace. Eventually we’d get to the what. A referral to a counselor or doctor. A book to read or a support group to join. Certainly, prayers said right in that space and often afterward. All important, but none as important as the person right in front of me.

My deepest hope is that we remember that people are more important than whatever problem they face, that human beings are never the sum of their diagnosis, circumstances or various labels, that getting to the what matters far less than honoring and valuing the who. I am so thankful for the witness of faithful people who have not only told me this truth, but have taught me this truth and lived it in their treatment of others and their treatment of me. 

No matter if we are physicians or pastors, teachers or parents, partners or politicians, all of us can practice seeing everyone we meet as holy mysteries, divine images, beloved children, unique gifts of the Most High God, human beings, a who so much more than any what.

Grace and peace,