This is the third post in the Alternative Cosmologies series. As with the first and second posts, the following tale is fictional. Sort of.
John had the world by the tail. He graduated at the top of his class from a prestigious prep school. Harvard was the only college he applied to, and he got in easily. At Harvard, he majored in all the socializing that had been denied him at his all-male prep school. He also got a degree in biology, and graduated at the top of his class again — the third straight generation in his family to do so. Having lived in Boston his whole life, John wanted to get out a little — far enough away to be really away, but close enough to come home for a Red Sox game if he felt like it. With grades as good as he had, he could apply to med school just about anywhere he liked, and he settled on Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he continued to excel, eventually specializing in cardiology.
When he finished school, John wanted to return to Boston, but there were no openings he was really interested in at the time, and he ended up in Omaha for a few years waiting for the right position to open up.
John had…ahem…socialized quite a bit while he was in school, but he always told himself and his various female playmates that there was no time for anything serious. Suddenly he found himself with a real job, whole days off with no exams to study for, in a strange city too far from home. He began to date a bit more seriously. He had always pictured himself marrying another young, upwardly-mobile type like himself, but to his great surprise he fell in love with a waitress named Sally who worked at the diner across the street from the hospital. Their wedding was an interesting cultural experience for both families, but everyone was civil enough. After a couple years, Sally had their first child, a boy, and a year after that, she was pregnant with their second. Meanwhile, the right position opened up in Boston and they moved back to his hometown.
At first Sally was thrilled. She had lived in Omaha her whole life, and she had wanted out since she was in high school. She loved Boston. She loved the museums, the ballet, the swan boats at the Public Garden, taking walks along the Charles River — all of it. John was in heaven. He had his dream job — well, not his dream job yet, since he wanted to be head of cardiology at the hospital — but he was in a good position for his age and experience, his wife was happy, he adored his kids, and he was back home where he belonged. Everything was grand.
But after the birth of their third child, Sally started taking Xanax. John’s family was civil enough, but they weren’t close with Sally, and she was having trouble making friends in the circles John moved in. They had plenty of money, so she could hire a sitter and go to a museum exhibit opening or the ballet, but Boston’s rich cultural life didn’t compensate for her total lack of friends. Desperately lonely, Sally began spending long afternoons on the phone with her mother, sister, and cousins back in Omaha. One night over dinner, she casually asked John if he’d ever thought about moving back to Omaha.
John laughed. “Of course not, baby,” he said. “I never would have gone to Omaha in the first place if I’d been able to get a decent position here at the time. Worked out well for me, though,” he said, grinning at her. “I’m glad I went.”
“Me too, darling,” Sally said, and smiled, and John was so happy with his life that he didn’t notice that her smile never quite reached her eyes.
He noticed a few months later, in June, when Sally took the kids on a six-week vacation to Omaha. He talked to Sally on the phone every night, and he could tell something was wrong, but she didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Sally and the kids came back in July, but it wasn’t the same. John would get home from work and he could tell that she’d been crying.
“What is it, baby?” he would ask, and Sally would just shake her head and change the subject.
One day in October, John came home and found a tearstained note on the table. “I love you, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m going back to Omaha. I know you’ll never be happy anywhere but Boston, but I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m so lonely all the time. I still love you, and I want you to be part of our lives. We’ll work something out about custody for the kids. I’m taking them with me right now, but I’m not trying to keep them from you, truly I’m not. I just don’t want them to think I’m abandoning them. I love you more than I can say. I’m so sorry.”
John sat at the table for a long, long time.
Eventually, he got up, put on his coat, and went out. He had no idea where he was going. He just wandered. It was something to do other than sit at the table and stare at that damned note. For a long time he walked, taking turns at random. After a while, he realized he was tired — so tired — and cold, and he looked around to see where he was. It wasn’t the sort of neighborhood he would ever go into, but he was across the street from a little church. The lights were on, so he went in.
The priest spotted John right away — his coat cost more than any of the parishioners would make in a month. When the service was over, the place emptied out, leaving John sitting alone in the back. The priest, a little Irishman with red cheeks and a boxer’s crooked nose, came back and sat down next to John. He’d been at his work a long time, and he knew that look of desperation. So he just sat silently for a while, being present and feeling John slowly unwind.
When the time seemed right, he turned to John. “So what brings a man like you into my poor little parish church on a 15-degree night, hmmm?”
John tried to lay out the situation rationally, but he started crying as soon as he opened his mouth to talk, and the story tumbled out in pieces. John could never explain how it happened, but he slowly became aware that he was not just talking to the priest — there was a third person with them in the conversation. To this day, John doesn’t remember anything the priest said, but he will swear that Jesus was there with him, hearing his pain and comforting him.
John became a Christian that day. He didn’t become a Roman Catholic — it would have scandalized his (culturally) Presbyterian family — but he would never forget that on the day that he called out to God, God came near to him.
Being a Christian didn’t fix John’s life. At least, not right away. When he didn’t follow her to Omaha within a few months, Sally filed for divorce. But John got some good help, and he did move to Omaha, giving up a promising career in Boston to be near his family, and it didn’t take much effort to persuade Sally to tear up the divorce papers and come back to him. Like Marcus, Daljeet and Chao, John continued in the calling he was in when Christ called him, and became a Christian doctor.
Of course, John’s textbooks said nothing about balancing bodily humors, as Marcus’ or Daljeet’s did. Nor, like Chao’s textbooks, did they teach him to balance the meridian system, nor did they teach him the Daoist history of the universe, in which the emptiness gave birth to fulness which gave birth to Taiji which gave birth to yin and yang which gave birth to the five elements and the whole universe from there. No, his textbooks talked about the Big Bang and evolution, and like Chao it took him a while to think that through and realize that the Bible tells a different story. That aside, John remained primarily concerned with keeping his patients’ hearts healthy, and he delivered the best care he could, prescribing appropriate medications, encouraging healthy diets and exercise, and referring patients for surgery when necessary.
Being in a different sort of society, John was not professionally ostracized for his conversion to Christianity, but he had his own struggles with the paganism in his profession. Two floors down in the same hospital where he worked, they performed abortions. John had been trained that a fetus isn’t really alive in the same way as a person, but one day he ran across Psalm 139, and the more he meditated on it, the more troubled he became. He had certainly loved his own children in the womb, he realized — why wouldn’t God love all children in the womb? And if He did, how could it be right to kill them?
John is still struggling with what it means to be a Christian doctor in the contemporary American medical system. He doesn’t like working in a hospital where abortions are performed, but he doesn’t really know what to do about it, and somehow picketing the third floor doesn’t seem realistic. Some days he doesn’t feel like he’s got any answers; other days, one of his colleagues will corner him and ask him why he handled a particular situation the way he did, or why he’s just a bit different generally, and he’ll have a chance to share Christ. Sally came to Christ a few years ago, followed by all the kids — there are four now — and John loves to gather up the family when he gets home from work and tell them about the doctor or nurse that he got to share Christ with. He’ll tell the story of the conversation, and then they will all pray together for his coworker to come to Christ. John feels pretty good, those days.
John will live with that tension for the rest of his career. He will hope to pass on his accumulated wisdom on the matter to at least some of his children, but none of them will go into medicine. That will be a bitter disappointment to him, but he will make his peace with it in time, and be happy that his children are happy in vocations that suit them. John will live to a ripe old age, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. To his surprise and delight, his oldest granddaughter will be interested in medicine, and John will live long enough to see her enter med school before he dies.