Feeling a little overwhelmed was par for the course during residency. I remember one harried day on the inpatient neurology service when after morning lecture and hospital rounds I had to run down to the clinic to see a few patients in the afternoon. Resident’s clinic was not my favorite thing, but especially not when I was on service. My pager kept going off with news from the 10th floor inpatient unit while I was seeing outpatients on the ground floor of the clinic building next door. It’s hard to keep focus and work efficiently when you are pulled in two directions at once.
Finally I finished seeing my clinic patients and rushed toward the exit to head back upstairs. The residents up there probably needed my help, as there always seemed to be more to do in the hospital than there was time in the day to do it.
As I rounded the corner and passed by the clinic bathroom I became aware of how badly I needed to use it. How many hours had it been since I emptied my bladder? I had no idea. Better take the opportunity, because I might not have another chance for a while.
Inside the bathroom I was shocked at the amount of urine all over the toilet seat and floor. Yes, shocked. And I’m a man! It was hard to believe that anyone could be so irresponsible as to leave it that way. The more I looked at it, the more upset I became.
Normally I would do my part to leave the place cleaner than I found it, but I just couldn’t add this task to my to-do list that day. “Why should I clean up someone else’s mess?” I thought. “I do enough work around here without taking on the janitor’s job!”
So I left the mess exactly as I found it. I turned and walked away.
Down the hall I stormed, past an old man moving very slowly with a walker, who was assisted by an old woman. “It’s right down here on the left,” she said to him.
I paused and looked back over my shoulder just as the two of them walked into the bathroom. The recognition of what was happening came to me gradually, and a moment after the door latched I suddenly thought, “Oh, no!” But it was too late to do anything. After a moment of standing there with wide eyes and my mouth hanging slightly open, I turned and continued on my way.
I felt about two feet tall.
My actions reflected poorly on me, and also on my institution and my department. The old couple surely saw me walk out of that messy bathroom wearing my long white coat and ID badge. They must have assumed that I was the one who couldn’t hit a target from 2 feet away, and then left the evidence of my target practice. What kind of hospital would hire a doctor like that? And if the doctors are that irresponsible with bathroom messes, can they really be trusted to make clinical decisions?
Last week in our family scripture time we studied a verse from Micah that could have helped me on that occasion:
“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8, emphasis added).
The Lord requires us to do two things which are not always in harmony with one another: do justly and love mercy. If justice is your only directive, then mercy can seem like robbery. But if you are always granting mercy, then justice will be left unserved. How does one balance these competing ideals? With humility, because we don’t always know the motives of others and we don’t even perfectly know ourselves.
Why did I behave the way I did when I found the toilet mess? I think because I was only considering my own perspective. Who was to blame? Not me! Walking away from that mess felt perfectly justified, and justice seemed like the only important thing — at least until I saw the person who would have to deal with the mess.
Obviously there was more to consider than mere justice. Wasn’t there a role for mercy here? I didn’t see it at the time, but with a cooler head I might have realized that the unknown person in the neurology clinic with exceptionally poor aim was likely someone with a neurologic disability. For all I knew he had cauda equina syndrome or transverse myelitis, or some other reason for incontinence. If so, then did I do well to be angry?
A little humility could have helped me there. I might have been less apt to judge and more inclined to be helpful. If I had just cleaned up the mess it would have really helped the next person who walked in the room, and that alone would have been worth the effort.
Now, I am confident that my net contribution to goodness in the world was positive for that day, despite my toilet mess fumble. There were sick and suffering patients, burned-out colleagues, and insecure medical students that I helped and made life easier for. I trust that the Lord is willing to gloss over our mistakes when we feel sorry for them and learn from them.
I guess the bottom line is that life is messy. It always will be, as long as there are people in this world who stand up to pee. “That’s just my normal life every day, finding messes everywhere that I didn’t make,” my wife said. (We have six boys.)
How do we respond to life’s messes? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.