September 10, 2009
WOOSTER, Ohio - As a rule, journalists try to separate themselves from the subjects they cover, but Tracy Kidder was so profoundly influenced by Paul Farmer, the young doctor he
profiles in his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, he wound up becoming part of the story.
Kidder, a well-known author and journalist, spoke to a large crowd at the opening Wooster Forum lecture Wednesday night in McGaw Chapel, where many first-year students who read his book over the summer gathered with fellow students, faculty, staff, and community members for a message that tied in perfectly with the theme of this year's Forum: "Global Citizens: Turning Passion into Action"
Described by Kidder as a "hip nerd" with a "genetic predisposition to question conventional wisdom," Farmer made a life-changing decision while in Haiti after watching a woman die because she could not afford a blood transfusion. It was at that point that Farmer proclaimed, "I'm going to build my own hospital."
Driven by compassion and selflessness, Farmer earned a Ph.D. in anthropology as well as a medical degree from Harvard, and, at the age of 27, established Partners in Health, a global organization that provides healthcare options for the poor. With clinics and hospitals in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, Malawi, and elsewhere, Partners in Health has saved thousands from what Kidder calls "stupid diseases" and "unnecessary deaths."
Kidder also spoke openly and honestly about the "problem of goodness," a dilemma faced by inherently skeptical journalists when they have difficulty bringing balance to a story because they are unable to find anything negative to report on the subject. Such was the case with Farmer, who saw misery and suffering, and decided to take action. "He had very few critics, and even they expressed respect and admiration for him," said Kidder. "Our fact checker could not come up with anything either. 'Everyone loves him,' she said."
Without much in the way of balance, Kidder sought to make the story credible through his vivid
descriptions of each scene where extreme hunger and suffering were palpable. He also began to promote Farmer's vision because he believed it was true. "I wrote in first person, making myself a character in the story," he said."My goal was to bring the reader with me."
The experience became more personal when Kidder discussed his struggle to reconcile his comfortable life with the impoverished lives of the citizens in Haiti. "I knew that if
I followed (Farmer), he would disturb my peace of mind."
Kidder admits that he will never reach Farmer's level of devotion, but he has become a
supporter of the organization. "Paul doesn't own a car, doesn't have an investment portfolio, and until recently, he didn't even have a home to call his own," said Kidder. "I don't see myself doing that, but I do try to raise money for the organization whenever I can."
In closing, Kidder acknowledged that he had no magic recipe for Wooster students, but he did offer a few final words of advice. "Each of you will have to find what you love to do," he said. "There is no skill that can't be used to help others. Get your mind off yourself and into the world. If you seek to improve the world, you will also improve yourself."
The next Wooster Forum event will be Tuesday, Sept. 22, when Nicholas Kristof, a
New York Times columnist and the author of Half the Sky will speak about the
oppression of women in third-world countries at 7:30 p.m. in McGaw Chapel (340
E. University St.).
1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, Ohio 44691. (330) 263-2000
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