From a Distance

Watching M*A*S*H in syndication, with its endless triage of patients, leads me to think about triage for our world and its problems.


As I do my now-requisite treadmill time, I flip through the channels, trying to find something that will take my mind off my feet. The news channel waylays me for a moment. A man threatens to take the City of Saskatoon to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission over their refusal to stop running ‘Merry Christmas’ signs on City buses, and an albino Nigerian immigrant takes Earl’s restaurant to the BC Human Rights Commission over their refusal to rename their ‘Albino Rhino’ beer to something she finds less offensive.

Through the magic of syndication, my TV also brings me the doctors and nurses of M*A*S*H, who move again among the wounded, deciding who to help first, who to help later, and who is beyond their help. M*A*S*H introduced me to triage, what my dictionary calls the “assignment of degrees of urgency for the purpose of treatment”. At accident scenes, it means looking past the wailing of accident victims to identify and treat the most grievously injured first. When someone we love is terminally ill, it means supporting them first and worrying about our dust bunnies later.

It is a cruel reality that we cannot do everything. Unless we set priorities, we will fail to do what is important. Do we need triage in our world today? For the perspective to answer this question, let’s conduct a thought experiment. God is watching us from a distance — Julie Gold wrote that and Bette Midler sang it, inspiring many. We cannot know the mind of God, but maybe we can imagine the view, from a distance.

From a distance, do we see Merry Christmas signs on Saskatoon buses and Albino Rhino on Vancouver menus? I think not.

From a distance, we see the environment under assault. Our Earth, our blue and green lifeboat in space, is not secure. Even in Canada, we no longer take clean drinking water for granted, or assume that there are fish in the oceans.  If the ecosystem crashes, all God’s creatures will crash along with it.

From a distance, we see rampant disease. In Africa, AIDS is the leading killer, but the old-fashioned ones like malaria are with us still, killing millions. Children die of diseases caused by dirty water. Sitting here, we can’t see their faces or hear their mothers weeping. I do not want to imagine what God sees and hears.

From a distance, we see war: new-style terrorist attacks everywhere and old-fashioned shooting wars in Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Israel, Liberia, Syria, Yemen. Old hatreds boil beneath the surface in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Balkans, and India and Pakistan. Has Ireland come through that fire? Has South Africa? God only knows.

From a distance, we see injustice. Dictatorships violate human rights and millions exist in forms of labour bondage indistinguishable from slavery. Even in our democracies, children are violated every day — sexually, physically, emotionally — by those responsible for their care.  People of colour struggle to make a place for themselves in our communities, whether they were first to these shores or are more recent arrivals.

With these problems, what shall we treat as urgent, and what shall we defer to another day? While we cannot do everything, there is work enough for everyone.

Environmentalists dedicate their lives to reclaiming toxic dumps, to protecting wilderness, to education.

Researchers, doctors, nurses and engineers save lives by treating disease and eliminating its causes.

Negotiators resolve conflicts, and soldiers stand between warring factions, giving peace a chance.

Human rights organizations and journalists identify abuses of power, here and abroad. Police and social agencies and volunteers make our communities safer for the most vulnerable.

I cannot know the mind of God. At best, I can know my own mind. I know how easy it is to distract myself, to ignore problems in favour of entertainment. I know, too, how easy it is to focus on inconsequential things, rather than stepping up to the real problems of the day and doing what I can.

I am not responsible for all the problems of the world, but I am responsible for how I respond. That is the lesson of triage: I must choose. Will it be striving to overcome old hatreds”¦.or fussing about minor offences? Will it be saving lives, contributing to peace, protecting children”¦or cleaning up dust bunnies?

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8 Responses to From a Distance

  1. Jim taylor says:

    Well, I tell you, I watch old episodes of M*A*S*H too, but I hadn’t made that connection between triage in a medical setting and triage in a floundering world. Good for you. I will probably pay you the ultimate compliment and borrow your idea sometime! LIke my column today, yours is not very Christmas-y, but applying the triage principle, it may be far more important to say these tough things than to sugar coat a sentimental placebo.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Maybe if we don’t limit the message of hope and love to Christmas-time, we won’t be uneasy about including harder messages in its celebration. We can’t always do the “most important” thing–nor should we feel we have to–but we can sure keep an eye on our balance of substance to fluff!

  2. Dave says:

    Great reminder to put things in perspective. A suitable New Years resolution!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – Yup – we could all do with a dose of perspective. Not that mine is necessarily right! Usually, of course, but not necessarily….

  3. Leone says:

    Hi Isabel,
    As always, I enjoy reading your blog. I think this one is the Christmas message! My wish for us all is to love expansively and to put behind us the differences that are trivial in the “bigger picture.”
    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – Hah! Lucky she didn’t use the feminine article! Maybe we should start a site dedicated to folks who aren’t busy enough…

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