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I was in the Fifth Grade when my public elementary school changed the rules and allowed girls to wear “pant suits.” No plain pants, and definitely no jeans. School, after all, was a place of business, a professional setting in which one of the ways we showed mutual respect was by dressing nicely. Teachers wore dresses, skirts, or jackets and ties. Students wore “school clothes” and not “play clothes.” It didn’t matter if our parents were college educated or “blue collar” workers. Everyone was expected to present themselves in a way that reinforced the value of what they were doing.
I also remember the culture’s universal respect for doctors. There weren’t any toys in waiting rooms, only books and magazines. Patients were, in fact, patient. They were on time for appointments, didn’t expect a phone call reminder, and waited quietly without complaint while watching the fish until a nurse called their name and ushered them into an examining room. I remember using all my strength to climb up onto the table in a little undershirt, panties and socks, talking quietly or not at all with my mother, and sitting with feet dangling down for what would seem an eternity to any child. I listened to footsteps in the hallway outside the door, and heard the voice of my pediatrician without ever being able to make out what he was saying. But when the doctor came into the room, the whole atmosphere changed.
Whether I was sick or not, I knew and trusted that my doctor was there to take care of me. To be sure, I didn’t like everything he did. Shots, TB tests, the tongue depressor, some horrible tasting medicines: they weren’t any fun. But I was convinced that even those things were necessary, and for my own good. The doctor was there to prevent illness, and to treat it. Everything he did was for that purpose.
It amazes me that some of the medicines we took routinely and without a second thought are rarely, if ever, prescribed now. Cough syrups, paregoric, and slews of first generation antibiotics have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. (Given their potency, that might be best.) Some of the old fashioned over-the-counter remedies, however, are still on the shelves of drug stores. But if you didn’t know what Fletcher’s Castoria, Vick’s Vaporub, or Coke syrup were for, it would be highly unlikely that you’d ever find out.
Today’s medications, though, are everywhere around us. Cures for conditions and diseases that never would have been mentioned at all, let alone in what used to be called mixed company, are splashed all over the TV, transit systems, and highways and in slick print ads and commercials. I have to say the ads are convincing, at least until you hear the list of side effects. “Do not take if you are pregnant or might become pregnant.” “Women should not handle this medication due to the risk of a specific birth defect.” “May cause blindness.” “Do not donate blood until six months after you have stopped using this medication.” “Treats depression: side effects include depression, paranoia, increased risk of suicide. If you experience suicidal thoughts, contact your doctor.” “Not a substitute for a rescue inhaler. Useful in preventing or reducing asthma attacks: side effects include increased risk of death due to asthma.” And this is the stuff that is supposed to make us better?
Perhaps the old bitter pill was the better pill as well, and maybe the doctor who gave it to us was, in the end, more effective. But for those of us who aren’t sure what ails us or how to go about treating it, it might be good for us to know that the most eminent Doctor is always in. God is the Great Physician who knows us best because he made us; who heals us best because he loves us. He longs to bring all of humanity into wholeness and holiness. He still makes house calls. And what is his prescription for us in these days? Lent.
From a spiritual point of view, Lent can be considered a time of testing and diagnosis. But I think that Lent lived well can also be a treatment for what ails us. Have we become a bit too self-indulgent? Try fasting as a way of saying “no” to yourself. Have we become consumed by what we own, or unaware of the needs of others? Try almsgiving as a remedy for materialism and isolation. But do so remembering that, as Jack London wrote, “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” Have we lost sight of what transcends the world around us, or opens up the world within us? Try prayer as a pathway to seeing things from the Divine perspective, and drawing closer to the One for whom we were destined from eternity.
The great thing about fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is that there are no unwanted side effects, especially not any that are worse than the disease we’re trying to treat. Taking the divine Doctor’s advice, we may find that at the end of 40 days our souls and our selves are healthier than they have ever been. One thing is certain: when he enters the room, everything changes. As Jesus said, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” (Luke 5: 31) That’s my cue to go to the examining room.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.