The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose

I hate arguments. It’s not so much that I think I’ll lose, it’s just that when I win, I’m never actually sure I did. I mean even if someone smiles and stops shaking their head, they may still think they’ve won and that there’s no longer any need to convince me. What does protocol dictate at that point?

I saw a familiar head sitting on a log on a local beach the other day. It was attached to a body I no longer recognized, and in clothes that looked as if they’d been slept in, so I almost walked past it like a stranger. The voice it used to hail me, struck a chord I hadn’t heard in years however, so I looked more closely and saw a face I had known in university a lifetime ago.

“John…?” I said, hoping I’d got the name correct.

“G,” he replied, a hopeful grin slowly crawling onto his face. “It is G isn’t it?”

I nodded. “You always called me that, anyway, I remember.”

“Pull up a log, G,” he added, pointing to the one on which he was obviously airing his socks. “You ever make it into medical school,” he said, the smile still painted on his lips. It was a test question, I think, because I noticed him examining my clothes.

I nodded again as I tried to make myself comfortable on the bumpy log. “And you?” I tried desperately to remember what he’d planned for himself. John had never been a close friend, but he’d always seemed to show up at the same parties; you could usually hear him arguing about something even across a noisy room.

“Never got my degree,” he admitted with a little shrug. “Too many other things got in the way, I guess…”

Too many women, I seemed to recall, but I didn’t say anything. There was an awkward silence for a moment. “Anyway,” I ventured slowly, uncertain how to proceed with someone I barely knew, “I imagine you’re retired now, though, eh?”

His eyes hardened and the smile disappeared. “Why do you think I’m retired, G?”

I shrugged, embarrassed at his accusatory tone. “We’re both close in our ages, as I remember… and, well, I’m retired now…”

He refashioned his lips, but it looked more like a growl than a proto-smile. “You doctors can all afford to retire early,” he said with a now visible sneer. The way he said the word ‘doctors’ was a warning, I thought.

I smiled to disarm the moment and stared at the whitecaps out in the sea for a while; the wind was coming up and the waves were growing in size as the tide began to vandalize the beach in front of us. I decided to try again. “You were always interested in business, as I recall. Did you ever start your own as you’d planned?”

His faced softened and I could see a faraway look in his eyes. “Yeah, I tried a few times, but without a degree, nobody seemed to want to invest in me.” He stared at the sand and then glanced at me. “Of course, the heart attack didn’t help… or the Emergency doctor who missed it…”

“Oh…? How so, John?” I could see his eyes hardening again.

“He apparently thought I’d just had too much to drink and sent me home…”

“Without an ECG or blood tests?”

I must have looked doubtful, because once more, his expression changed. “It was the middle of the night and the cops had brought me in, so after smelling my breath, I think the doctor figured I was just another street person looking for a warm bed and some food.”

“I’m really sorry, John. So when was the correct diagnosis made?”

He stared at a sail far out to sea and then stapled me with an angry look. “When the cops found me collapsed on the street with chest pain an hour or so later, they called the paramedics who put an EKG on my chest on the way to the hospital. They told the doc that they figured it was a heart attack.”

“So, what did the Emerg doc…?”

John’s scowl effectively interrupted me. “So he did some more tests, ran an EKG and made me lie on a stretcher in the Emergency Ward.”

“And did they confirm it was a heart attack? I mean, how long did they keep you?”

“The idiots in the department said they weren’t sure about it being a heart attack, so they ran a few more tests, and called a cardiologist to see me…” John was clearly angry now. “And eventually, after some whispering and chuckling outside the curtain they’d pulled around the stretcher, they discharged me again.”

I shook my head sympathetically, as if they must have made a mistake. “So what did the cardiologist think it was?”

John rolled his eyes. “He never said -but he did tell me to come back if it happened again.” He glared at me for a moment. “I don’t think he did the right tests… They don’t on people like me, you know…” His eyes were like needles boring into my cheeks.

I nodded, but carefully. Slowly. “I wonder why they let you go if they really weren’t sure, John…” I tried to keep my voice non-committal, but it just didn’t seem likely they would send him home if they thought there was even a possibility he’d had a heart attack.

“They let me go because they thought I was just a drunk. A street person, that’s why, G!” He was clenching his jaw so tightly that I could tell it was hard for him to talk.

I have to admit that the way he was staring at me made it difficult to keep a smile on my face; he was beginning to look aggressive. I thought I’d try to calm him down. “Maybe the tests were non-confirmatory, or something.”

His eyes hardened again. “I already told you, G.  They didn’t do the right tests!”

I sighed and tried to keep the doubt out of my voice. “I know a quite a few Emergency Room docs, John; I used to have to see patients in Emerg on every shift. I think they’re all pretty good at triaging patients appropriately…” I smiled empathetically even though he started to clench his fists. I thought I’d better diffuse things. “So, did you have any more chest pains after that? I mean, did you ever have to go back to the hospital?”

He looked at me quizzically. “You kidding? Give them another chance to look down their snooty noses at me? No way. I take it easy now; I cut back on the booze, and got myself a job with the city collecting trash. No more chest pain, either…” He glanced out to sea for a moment.

“Maybe you didn’t really have heart problems, John.”

He narrowed his eyes for a moment and squinted at my face. “Or I did, and it got better without those idiot docs having to do anything.”

“So…” I wasn’t sure what to say without stirring him up again. “So, win-win, eh?”

He kind of shrugged, then smiled. “Never thought of it that way, you know. Yeah, maybe…”

“Listen, I was going to head over to Starbucks for a coffee. Can I buy you one?”

Finally, a real smile spread across his face and stayed there. “Thought you’d never ask, G…”

As serendipity would have it, I came across an article that night discussing things that are unlikely ever to be solved by discussion because both sides are too deeply entrenched in their own views. It was written by Professor Klemens Kappel from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark: https://aeon.co/ideas/there-is-no-middle-ground-for-deep-disagreements-about-facts

What Kappel suggested was nothing new, I suppose: ‘We use our cognition to support factual beliefs or value commitments that are central to our identity, particularly in situations where we feel that our identity is threatened… Counter-evidence, meanwhile, is subjected to fierce critical scrutiny, or ignored altogether.’

The worlds John and I inhabited were so different that we probably didn’t even have the language to understand each other. But continuing the discussion over a coffee and a bagel seemed to help… Sometimes kindness blurs identities, I think.

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