The Wild Hunt has an interesting (and good) piece on first responders and the role of faith (I recommend going and reading it). The author makes mention of how other religions view the role of a first responder from their particular faith tradition and asks these questions of our own communities:
What is the role of Pagan theology in the mindset of the first responder? We don’t have referential texts to guide our sense of transformative justice or “Godliness” as it were. Is there any religiously-based ethic that drives Pagan first responders?
Or perhaps, YES! And I don’t think it stops with first resonders or first response situations. Anyone that is religious (regardless of the religion) and works with people in a heath care setting, in the aftermath of tragedy, or in moments of personal crisis has probably developed a perspective on what they do and how or why they do it, that is in some way and shape informed by their religion or spirituality.
I was Pagan when got my first job a lifeguard. After that, I was in the United States Navy for six years, and for four of them I was a Hospital Corpsman* (and for two of those years, one of my duties was being a victim’s advocate for sexual assault). In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never rushed into a burning building, I’ve never been shot at, I’ve not been in combat, and I’ve never delivered a baby on the side of the road in a snow storm. But I have drilled and trained for events like them. I have been on the ship’s fire party at a fire, I’ve been in full MOPP gear for hours on end (thankfully a false alarm), and I’ve pulled more than my fair share of people to safety (on and off duty) from the water. I’ve held the living and the dying and I have cried, bled and sweat for both. I’m not saying that to boast, or for credit of any sort (there are many people out there that have seen and done far more than I have); rather I’m saying this for some perspective for what amounts to my personal ethic on the matter. At the end of the day, I’m just a chick that had a job and an odd compulsion to run towards shit that other people would rather run away from.
Life is a gift. When you can give it, do so with humility; when you must take it, do so with mercy. And when you can do neither, offer all of the comfort and dignity that you can muster, for the person whose hand you are holding.
For the most part, the above has been an idea that has come after the fact. I never particularly thought about my theological or philosophical opinions about life and death or living and dying when I was on the job. There really isn’t time for religion when you are doing CPR or even just stitching someone up. You do what has to be done because its what has to be done. You’ve trained enough to assess the situation and do what has to be done because its become second nature. And when you come across something that you haven’t trained for, you do what you can to the best of your ability until someone with more training comes along. In the moment, the only thing you think about is the moment.
Instead, my spiritual practices have been what I’ve found useful–grounding and centering to get through everything from adrenaline and fatigue to despair and elation with a cool head, cleansing to let go of the events of the day before going home to family or out with friends, or a blessing before heading in and a moment of thanks upon coming out. And like the training of what to do for a broken bone or an electrical fire, they are only really useful because they’ve been practiced to the point that they are instinctive. Paganism might not have an authoritative text to offer a theological perspective on service before self, or the nature of healing, or the value of life…instead we have a plethora of ideas and ideals on those matters. What I think our religious traditions can offer though, is a set of practices (common to contemporary Paganism) that can be incredibly valuable to the Pagan that does disaster work, or is a medic, or a police officer, etc.
*If you aren’t familiar with the term, the closest analog would be “medic”…but being a corpsman is more than being a medic (since most of us equate the term with paramedic). A corpsman is doctor and nurse on ships at sea without them, they are the paramedic and the ER technician and the CNA and LPN at the hospital, they are the person the draws your blood, shoots your x-rays, that conducts your lab tests, passes out condoms, keeps your records, gives shots, delivers babies, acts as the FDA inspector and the Orkin Man, fixes broken bones, teaches first aid and CPR…and the list goes on. There is no civilian equivalent to the Hospital Corpsman, and really, there is no equivalent to the Hospital Corpsman in either the Air Force or the Army, which both divy up the role of a corpsman into many different jobs (if you are wondering why I didn’t mention the Marines, its because Hospital Corpsman are their medics).
Extra note: The title for this post comes from something a patient of mine once told me…he’d been a Hospital Corpsman in Korea and Vietnam and he wasn’t doing so well…he was also one of my favorite patients. I asked him one day, what made a good corpsman, and his answer what that “What makes a good corpsman is what makes a good person–the only thing that counts, whether you are in the field or on the ward, in wartime or in peace, at work or at home, is that you do what you can, the best that you are able, for as long as you are needed.”