Joseph Rhatigan, Jr.: “The Things He Made Us Feel”

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Courtesy of Joseph Rhatigan.

Joseph Rhatigan, Jr., associate professor of medicine and global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and associate chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at HMS, delivered remarks honoring Paul Farmer on March 4 at HMS Quadrangle in Boston:

“Hello, and thank you for gathering on this frigid evening. I am Joe Rhatigan, and I first met Paul when we were both medicine residents at Brigham and Women’s and became friends.  I’ve had the privilege of working closely with him over the past 16 years and have served as his deputy division chief at BWH for the past decade. Like all of you, I’m going to miss him greatly.

At Paul’s funeral in Miami, Bill Clinton referred to Maya Angelou’s verse that observes:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”   

But Paul is special: it will be a long time before the world forgets what Paul said and what Paul did, because he was such an extraordinary scholar and leader.  Partners In Health and his writings will be alive for decades if not centuries.  But those feelings are fragile.  They live on indelibly in us whom he touched, but, eventually, time will take us all and those memories with us.  Therefore, we must nurture and share these feelings to ensure that those not lucky enough to have met Paul understand what a remarkable person he was.

Paul made me feel a great deal of things, but please permit me to share with you three things that I will always cherish:

The first was a deep sense of connectedness, not only to him, but to the work and the community of colleagues around the world engaged in the struggle for social justice.   We all can recall the feeling of being in Paul’s presence and having the sense that we were, at that moment, the most important person in the world to him.

This was never an illusion; it was genuine and authentic.  But that feeling didn’t stop there:  he would invariably introduce you to several of his friends and invite you into a family that extended across the globe.   And his friends would welcome you with open arms– just like we ourselves welcomed anyone he sent our way.

For someone like him with so many obligations and commitments, this open heartedness always seemed to me to be the most extreme form of his generosity.  Whenever I felt alone in my duties, just a few WhatsApp messages with Paul would remind me that there was a multitude of people I was working for and with, and that sense of separation would disappear, replaced by a renewed sense of connection and purpose.

The second thing that Paul made me feel was an unrelenting hope.  Hope, for Paul, was a moral decision.  He often told me that it was irresponsible for us, the privileged, to give into the temptations of cynicism and despair because there was so much we needed to do to address the situation of those suffering from poverty and disease.

When I was younger, he would patiently—and repeatedly—explain to me that I shouldn’t listen to the naysayers because they never once tried to do the very things that they said couldn’t be done; that I shouldn’t indulge the cynics because they unwittingly supported the inequity of the status-quo; and that I should not give into despair, because it will pass once I remember that it serves only injustice.

In place of despair, Paul offered a deliberate hope, one that is chosen and nurtured.  A hope that was not unrealistic but rather pragmatic. A hope that reminds us that how we choose to feel and what we choose to do will create the future that we choose to imagine.

The third thing Paul made me feel was an irrepressible joy.  Despite the enormous amounts of sadness and sorrow he experienced in his work, he invariably radiated a sense of joy, the joy that comes when one is using their many skills and talents to make the world a better place.

I realize it is difficult for us to feel that joy tonight when we are still grieving his loss. It is tempting to hold onto that grief because it is such a powerful feeling and reminds us of our special connection to him.  As long as we can feel the grief, we feel him. If we let go of the grief, we fear we will lose him and that his loss will be final and irrevocable.

I’m sure Paul would want us to grieve his passing, but only for a moment. He would not want his memory to bring tears to our eyes but rather that it bring joy to our hearts:

a joy that can acknowledge the suffering in the world but that finds its source in our shared humanity;

a joy that springs from the knowledge that standing with the poor and oppressed is the only moral place to stand;

and a joy that is born of the faith that through our collective actions we can eliminate the structures of oppression and allow every one of our brothers and sisters to flourish.

Because, as Paul, the gardener, taught us, that flourishing is our birthright.  I am sure all of you felt like you were a better version of yourself when you were around him:  more kind, more patient, more understanding. I did.  Paul was never content with treating the illness; he wanted those he served, those he taught, and those he befriended to thrive—for all of us to feel the glory of the flower within us.

I hope that, slowly by slowly, the grief we feel now is replaced by a deep joy and gratitude.  As we leave this sacred space in a little while, and return to the unfinished work ahead of us, let us do it with a renewed sense of purpose, and a commitment to share with those who were not fortunate to know him, the things he made us feel:  a deep connectedness, an unyielding and deliberate hope, and a bountiful and unabashed joy that delighted in our shared humanity.

Thank you.”

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