The other day I was speaking to another physician about grace. This was at church, not surprisingly, but later I wondered why such discussions don’t occur in the hospital. When I recall the more remarkable physician-patient encounters I have seen, the word that comes to mind as the common theme is grace.
We can see it in the physician calmly and pleasantly treating the irascible and demanding patient in the darkest, bone-wearying moments of a long shift. We can see it in the compassionate but direct explanation of the direst of news to a frightened patient. We can see it in the happy celebration of a beautiful newborn to a relieved and exhausted mother. And we can see it in the bedside comfort given to a dying patient in those quiet moments when time slows down.
If one agrees that grace exists, then he ought to ponder from where we get it. For me it is clear: grace is God’s gift of Himself to us. We can speak theologically about godliness, but grace is a more specific and tangible manifestation of what that is. In medical ethics we have the well-known and practical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, justice, and autonomy. But these describe the nature of what we should do. It is time, I propose, to speak of what we should be.
If we don’t speak of such things, then we ought to hope that they are at least manifest in our comportment, words, and deeds. Yet in our postmodern age, when society has abandoned such discussions, the mere mention of grace, something deeply profound, might strike that raw nerve in every man that fires the memory of something far greater than we’ve actually become. Or for many, want to become. And if the field of medical ethics is to move beyond an artful sophistry that produces philosophical justifications for our basest needs; if the profession of medicine is going to regain the moral standing in society for which it was created, then our medical schools must teach the highest principles. Like the magnificent blessing of grace we have received, that speaks to more than the nature of our acts, but to the nature of our being.