All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home. (Patch Adams)
I caught Patch Adams on cable yesterday. It’s been a long while since I’d seen it last and it was better than I remembered. Loosely based on the life of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, it skillfully explores both the power and dangers of unconditional love. Throughout the film, Patch (played brilliantly by Robin Williams) is completely unselfconscious, showing genuine concern for everyone around him. He’s willing to go to any lengths to get people to laugh–at him, themselves or their situation–and open up to the possibility of real friendship and community.
Most of the film then centers on his years in medical school in the 70s, where this compassionate approach is at odds with the “objective” methods of his teachers. Students are not even allowed to meet a patient until their third year, and even then the patients are treated as “interesting cases” rather than human beings. Not to be deterred, however, Patch repeatedly sneaks into the cancer ward to spend time with the dying, get to know them and remind them why life is worth living.
It’s not just patients, either; his entire life is marked by unconditional love–for his friends and colleagues, strangers on the street, even his self-focused and self-righteous “prick” of a roommate. But most of all his love is for fellow student Carin Fisher (played by Monica Potter). She too is self-focused and “objective” and, at first, cares only about her studies, but Patch won’t give up on her. Eventually he wins her over, teaching her to laugh at herself, getting her to join him in giving a dying patient one last “safari” (with a rubber-band gun and balloon animals), and in general teaching her compassion for those who need it most.
Patch has a bigger dream, however. Particularly after he sees a mother forced to spend the last minutes of her child’s life arguing with the hospital staff over insurance coverage, Patch sets out to build a place that would provide holistic and compassionate care regardless of whether a patient could afford to pay or not. Convincing a wealthy man to lend them property for this purpose, he gets Carin and another friend (Truman, played by Daniel London) to help him. It’s not exactly legal, of course, as Patch, Carin and Truman are still medical students, and in the end it almost costs him his career, but it allows them to help hundreds of people that had been turned away by mainstream medicine.
But this is where the film turns tragic (and if you haven’t seen it and plan to, you may want to stop reading here). An apparently mentally ill man named Larry comes into the clinic looking for help. Carin calls him “weird,” but Patch insists: “I’m weird. If we don’t show him compassion, who will?” So when Larry later calls the clinic looking for someone to talk to, Carin goes to visit him at home. When she gets there, however, Larry isn’t looking for someone to talk to at all, merely someone on whom to take out his pain and loneliness. In a moment that completely reverses the tone of this heretofore lighthearted film, he murders her, then kills himself.
Carin’s death challenges everything Patch has stood for, and it nearly destroys him. He packs his things and leaves medical school, abandoning his beloved clinic; he even drives to a cliff, thinking of throwing himself off. Instead he turns against God:
“So, what now, huh? What do you want from me?”
Stepping towards the cliff, he goes on: “Yah, I could do it. We both know you wouldn’t stop me. So answer me, please! Tell me what you’re doing….
“OK, let’s look at the logic. You create man. Man suffers enormous amounts of pain. Man dies. Maybe you should’ve had just a few more brainstorming sessions prior to creation. You rested on the seventh day. Maybe you should’ve spent that day on compassion.”
He moves yet closer to the cliff, knocking a rock off, but then concludes, “You know what? You’re not worth it.”
As he is turning to leave, however, he sees a butterfly sitting on his medical bag, which then flies over and lands on his arm, seemingly an indication that God cares more than it might seem. Yet the question remains: Why do people suffer “enormous amount of pain”? The film suggests that it is not because God lacks compassion, but because we abuse it for our own selfish ends, destroying ourselves and one another. Why is the world full of lonely and broken people like Larry? Because we don’t love each other as we should.
Leaving the cliff, then, Patch returns to medical school intent to continue to show compassion to those in need, but he soon learns that his secret clinic has been discovered. He is expelled and when he appeals, he ends up before the medical review board for practicing medicine without a license. “What if one of your patients had died?” the board asks, and Patch’s response is remarkable (if perhaps a bit improbable) in the aftermath of Carin’s murder:
What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity and decency… and, God forbid, maybe even humor? Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re gonna fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all–indifference…. A doctor’s mission should not be just to prevent death, but also to improve the quality of life. You treat a disease–you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you win, no matter what the outcome.
Yet if unconditional love is the answer to evil, it is not a cure-all. It didn’t save Carin; in fact it led to her death. For humanity is profoundly broken and we can twist even the best of things to evil. We can love the unlovable, but there is no guarantee they will love us back. Indeed, is it not the heart of the Gospel that God loved us–even to death–when we did not love him back? Ironically, the Gospel of John implies that God did spend “the seventh day” on compassion, as he emphasizes that the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection was “a great Sabbath” (John 19:31), the culmination of God’s love for the world.
Like Larry, however, we too abuse the compassion shown to us. He relied on Carin’s compassion to lure her to his house and kill her, and we too expect God to care for the suffering in the world, but then ourselves contribute to it. We want God to give us health and wealth, but even when have them, we rarely give him credit or use them to help those in need. Rather we partake in a system that spreads death throughout the world.
In the end, however, Patch is wrong: Death is the enemy. But Patch is also right: it is not death we should fear, but our own indifference.