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29th August: On Stigma

There came a leper to Jesus and he touched him. Mark 1:40-41 (AV)

Can you picture the scene? Can you imagine the shudder of horror that must have passed through the crowd of respectable and orthodox people when our Lord actually put out his hand to touch somebody suffering from a condition considered by all and sundry as ritualistically defiling? Our Lord cut through the prejudice and the false assumptions of everybody who saw what he was about to do. He refused to admit the possibility of contamination, or of being contaminated. And he showed by that very act that God cared for needy individuals, especially those who suffered from discrimination of any kind -- disease, or nationality (remember the Samaritan?) or sex, or social standing.

The word 'leper' in our Lord's day was not a medical diagnosis, but a prejudiced categorisation, a lumping together -- discourteous and hurtful -- of the ceremonially unclean. It is the same today in many languages, many cultures. What do you make of the difference between say, 'A person who happens to have a transient infection with Mycobacterium leprae and a leper'? People who have caught leprosy are branded, and the stigma all too often gives rise to cruel ostracism and moral condemnation. It also provides a ready excuse for not thinking and not knowing and not doing anything.

How easily do we doctors fall into the trap of labelling people! We do it, instinctively I suppose, when they come into our consulting room or 'out-patients'. After all, it's what we've been trained to do -- to observe. Some obvious feature about them strikes us at once, but in noticing this we may miss other even more important things.

When it comes to diagnosis, we may be so blinded by first impressions that significant points in the history or physical examinations fail to register. We stick a label on, we brand them, and then what we have done colours all our relations with them. It may be the degree of pigmentation of the skin, some tic or habit, or some social distinction or other, or that their symptoms could be psychosomatic and not organic.

Let us be on the watch today and every day that we don't jump to false and stigmatising conclusions.

Please help me, Lord, to treat everybody I shall meet today
with courtesy and consideration -- patients, staff, colleagues.
Save me from snap and superficial judgments.

Further reading: Mk 1:32-42.


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