The MerriamWebster online dictionary defines a "paragon" as "a model of excellence or perfection" [Etymology: Middle French, from Old Italian paragone, literally, touchstone, from paragonare to test on a touchstone, from Greek parakonein to sharpen, from para- + akonē whetstone, from akē point; akin to Greek akmē point...Date: circa 1548].
A couple of days ago on his blog Running a Hospital, Paul Levy, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, invited each reader to reflect on an individual who might come to mind as a "private moral guide" during moments of tension, difficult decision-making, or trying situations - the kind of person who, alive or dead, "serves as a standard against whom we judge our own behavior during a moral test."
Despite my struggles with faith I do often think of stories in the New Testament that give us a hint about Jesus' responses to the world around him. What I understand from most of these stories is that when he saw suffering he tried to heal it, and on more than one occasion when he saw human failure he would say, "Nor do I condemn you; go and sin no more." To me these responses on his part signify that we are not meant for pain but rather for peace, that we are not meant for shame and judgment but rather for acceptance and encouragement, and for the good work of striving to do our best, as people who have the capacity for reason, love, respect, and awe.
But a moral figure such as this, alive or dead, real or fictitious, can seem a little out-of-reach at times. Not so the person who inspired Paul Levy's reflection, the late Rose Finkelstein, a 101-year-old retired nurse who as a dedicated volunteer would often be found singing to the babies in the obstetrics department at BIDMC. A physician in conversation with Levy "said something about Rose along the lines of her being the kind of person who, when you do something in a patient setting that you feel really good about, you think that she would have been pleased."
When the going gets tough I do sometimes still think of my mother's mother (photo above), who died in 1985. I wonder how she might have handled things, or if she would be pleased at my handling of things. As I reflected on this question of moral guides I realized I do imagine a number of "spirit guides" looking over my shoulder for a variety of situations. Most of these "guides" are acquaintances from past chapters of my life who wouldn't even realize I still look to their example for guidance, and one of them is a fictional character! I thought I'd make it my list of the month: some of the exemplars against whose imaginary words of guidance I measure different aspects of myself.
For how to be a good spouse: my husband.
For writing: novelist and North Dakota poet laureate Larry Woiwode. His 1994 writing workshop at Cambridge University during a summer conference on C.S. Lewis was one of the highlights of my life; I only wish I could have lived up to the high ideals he set before us at the time.
For anesthesia: this is going to sound almost sacrilegious, but the other night when my husband and I were relaxing by watching a re-run of The Hunt for Red October, I realized that the character of Commander Bart Mancuso of the USS Dallas as played by Scott Glenn is the kind of leader I'd want to emulate - intelligent, knowledgeable, cool in a crisis, able to take charge even in unfamiliar territory, respectful of his crew's talents and concerned for their safety.
For medicine in general: Indira Dasgupta, M.D., a mentor from my days in pediatrics. Her knowledge, dignity, humor, and attentive care for her patients accompany me to each bedside as I try to do the best work I can, as she always expected of me.
For teaching: Matthew Pravetz (a great med school professor), James Stewart (not the actor!), and Wilhelm Burmann (one of the best ballet coaches in the world).
These are just a few; I could sit here and think of a few more, but what I find interesting as I enjoy this exercise is the realization that the people who come to mind as my mental "guides" were people I consider to have been my best teachers...