Leaping Clear of the Many and the One
From In the Spirit of Service, published in Tricycle Magazine online blog*
By David G. Addiss, MD, MPH
Approaching the main entrance of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, one immediately notices a granite wall engraved with a radical vision: “The attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” Within this building—and an affiliated network of medical centers, public health agencies, and clinics—an estimated 59 million global health workers labor to improve the well-being of all people, no matter their circumstances. To borrow a phrase from the late street performance artist Steve Ben Israel, global health represents a “mass uprising of compassion.”
Those who work in global health rarely use such emotional language to describe themselves, but a compassionate impulse often underlies their decision to enter the field. So what is the source of this impulse—one that seeks to improve the health of people far away, often separated by geography, culture, religion, and nationality?
I have spoken about this question with hundreds of global health workers, students, and leaders. For many of them, a formative experience or a particular human encounter stirred their heart and set the course of their life’s work. For former US Surgeon General David Satcher, it was the compassion he received from a physician who cared for him when, at five years of age, he nearly died from whooping cough. For Brazilian physician Gerusa Dreyer, a pioneer in the treatment of elephantiasis, it was the plea of a mother whose daughter suffered from that stigmatizing and disfiguring condition. For Jacky Louis-Charles, a physical therapist in Haiti, it was the realization that he had the skills to alleviate the suffering of a man with advanced elephantiasis, from whom he had run in fear as a young boy.
Rather than turn away from suffering, all three of these global health luminaries had the courage to remain in its midst. By doing so, they experienced the depths of human connection and bore witness to the power of compassion.
A special challenge for global health professionals is to make sure we do not lose sight of the individual human faces behind the health statistics that so inform our work. Attending to both the faces and the numbers—the individual and the collective—is necessary. Without being fully present to the people who suffer, our compassion can wither; without access to accurate data, our global health programs can become ineffective. How do we hold them both?
Offering a dharmic solution to this challenge, the 13th-century Zen master Dogen says, “the Buddha way, is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one.” Especially relevant in our age of globalization, his words remind us that the awakened way, the compassionate way, demands that we leap clear of dichotomies and instead see the faces in the numbers. In doing so, we embrace the deep interconnectedness of all beings and remain free to respond to suffering with compassion.
*This essay is a subset of “In the Spirit of Service” published in Tricycle Magazine’s online blog. Within the full article, international aid leaders explain how Buddhism’s boundless states—lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—manifest in their work. Featured writers include Sharon Salzberg, Pierre Ferrari, David G. Addiss, Ellen Agler, and Jeffrey C. Walker. Click here to read the full article.