Joe’s case of lymphoma was as vicious as I had ever seen since moving to Maine. Short, transitory remissions punctuated by bizarre infections in a young, single male reminded me of similar cases of lymphoma I had seen in New York before 1976 that perplexed the cancer center experts. These cases of lymphoma, also characterized by large masses of tumors blocking organs and extremities, were ominous signs that something new was going on.
During one of the few respites of his illness, Joe declared he wanted to visit Israel and Egypt. He wanted to “walk where Jesus walked” and see the pyramids. I was reluctant to let Joe travel, but he insisted on going on his 12-day trip, surmising this could be his last vacation abroad, or anywhere.
Joe brought back a bag of gifts he had purchased in the Middle East for his friends. Rummaging around in the bag during one of his chemotherapy visits to my office, he presented me with a replica of a 4-inch scarab, or dung beetle, with Egyptian hieroglyphics written on it explaining the religious function of the scarab. Being a historian, Joe informed me that scarabs, according to the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” were placed on a person’s chest at the time of death to draw out all the hardness of a person’s heart. In this way the person’s heart would weigh less than a feather, securing for the individual entrance into the early Egyptian understanding of Heaven.
During those same days (2000-1400 B.C.) in history, the Hebrew people were in Egypt first as a free people because of the efforts of Joseph, a young Hebrew elevated to the role of prime minister, and later as slaves because the new pharaoh “did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). After the Jews left Egypt during the Exodus, Moses used the familiar language of the Egyptian burial custom with scarabs to instruct the Hebrews how to live: “Do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7). Five centuries later King Solomon in the book of Proverbs advised the people: “He who hardens his heart falls into trouble” (Proverbs 28:14). A thousand years later in the New Testament, the writer of the Book of Hebrews continued to use this terminology to admonish those in the early Christian church: “Today, if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:8). Why has this theme resonated throughout the millennia?
All these examples of being hardhearted are warnings against being unsympathetic toward people with problems, no matter the causes or circumstances. This attitude of the heart is the basis of compassion — the sympathetic concern and pity for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Jesus crystallized the importance of this principle when asked what was the greatest commandment. Quoting from the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-39).
Joe died from widespread, uncontrollable lymphoma only months after returning from his trip, years before we understood what was to be known as the AIDS epidemic and its devastating effects upon a person’s immune system and usual fatal course. Fortunately, the outlook has changed greatly now for individuals affected with AIDS with the advent of effective control of the disease. When I recall the early days of the AIDS epidemic — when afflicted people were often ostracized because of their condition — I consider Joe’s gift prophetic.
During my years of medical practice, Joe’s gift remained on a strategic spot on the desk in my office, so that I would have to look at it whenever I would interview a new patient or talk with a family. It has always been a poignant reminder to live each day loving others and having compassion, rather than hoping a scarab will remove a lifetime of hardheartedness of not loving my neighbor. And who is my neighbor? According to Jesus’ answer in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke10:25-31), my neighbor is everyone I meet.
Do any of us really want to wait until our last breath to become compassionate toward others?
Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, writer, playwright and director, and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.