Target, Kaiser, and Man’s Search for Meaning

Twelve years ago, I stood in front of the cleaning supply section at a Safeway in Guerneville, California, frozen.

“You’re looking for the magic wand. It’s not here,” my brother-in-law Scott said gently.

We were preparing to go into my mom’s house. Was it twelve years ago? Were we moving her stuff to a new place, or just trying to un-hoard her current place? Or both? Which Mom Mission was this?

Scott had been on enough missions to know that the answer did not lie in a bottle of Mr. Clean. I see the same pilgrims every time I work at Target, though. Whatever the problem, real or perceived, there is a look that people get when they’re trying to solve it with the right stuff.

The more fundamental the need, the more likely we are to be able to meet it. If you’re hungry, if you have mice, if your toddler blew a nuclear diaper and ruined a whole outfit on a car trip, we’ve got you. If you need fifty 5×7 craft paper envelopes for your hand-made invitations, today, maybe not so much. (If you’re trying to fix a hoarder, obviously no. But plastic tubs are in D37 and rubber gloves are in A26.)

It’s kind of sweet to see how much childlike faith people have in stores, especially the big ones that seem like they have everything. (The truth is, what they have is based on what sells, not what people need. It’s a business.) We expect the line to go fast, too, but sometimes it’s full of humans being human instead. We expect to be taken care of, mostly through our interaction with stuff (which was Mom’s issue as well).

It’s how I want medicine to be: I expect doctors to know the answers, I expect humility when they don’t know, and I expect them to know the difference. I want the experience to be one where my family and I feel taken care of.

I heard today that what people want isn’t answers for their suffering, it’s meaning. (It’s true that Viktor Frankl didn’t call his book about surviving Auschwitz Man’s Search for Answers.) What if we never found out the “real” reason my son has a movement disorder and now, as of two Sundays ago, a speech impediment out of the absolute blue? What if his last stay in the Behavioral Unit achieved nothing more than breaking his habit of covering himself with cuts? What if he never gets out of that wheelchair that was so casually inserted into our lives? What if I’m not doing enough to figure this out? What if I’m doing too much? What if the bitchy psychiatrist was right that my kid is producing one mystery symptom after the next for reasons of… (Insert knowing, contemptuous facial expression here. God, what a bitch.) What if I’m being played, for attention, as my ex-husband told me for years and at every opportunity? What if I’m being just like that by under-reacting to his needs? What if Future Me is looking back and yelling through time, It’s there, it’s right there, you’re so close!

I don’t know why my kid has to suffer so much. What can be the meaning of this??? I don’t know what’s behind his litany of symptoms. I don’t know if doctors can help, or want to. I do know that the answers will not be found on a shelf. If Kaiser is anything, it’s the insurance equivalent of a big box store: a business that is really good at basic stuff.

But it’s also an organization made of humans who worked for years at learning how to solve these problems and answer these questions. So I still have faith, even while I wait upon the meaning, and I sit with the suffering as just another part of life.

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