In this week’s online edition of “The New Yorker“, Atul Gawande‘s essay entitled “Slow Ideas” offers an intriguing look into why some ideas become viral and others don’t. He begins with two 19th century medical innovations, the use of anesthesia (which rapidly spread around the world within weeks) and the principles behind antisepsis (which took decades to become the norm).
The use of anesthesia was an effect immediately demonstrated. Patients no longer had to be held down, screaming until they fainted from the agony of a surgical procedure. The use of antiseptics, on the other hand required a great deal of effort on the part of the surgeon, using a caustic carbolic acid solution to rid himself of something he couldn’t see (germs) with the hopes of preventing an infection sometime in the near future. And while both innovations benefited the patient, only one benefited the doctor.
Fastfoward to 1968 when an important, but little talked about, medical advance occurred. In an area now known as Bangladesh, when IV solutions ran out during a cholera outbreak, researchers gave a simple oral solution-literally, a simple solution of water, sugar, and salt for rehydration-to victims and were able to reduce the death rate from 30% to 3.4%. You would think that this idea, this simple solution, would become the norm for treating cholera. But by 1980 diarrheal disease still remained the world’s biggest killer of children under the age of five. That was the year that a Bangladesh non-profit started a program that eventually sent workers door-to-door to over 75,000 villages and instructed 12 million families on how to mix this simple solution using what was available to them, a common size water container, their hands for measuring salt and sugar, teaching them to save their sick children.
“As other countries adopted Bangladesh’s approach global diarrheal deaths dropped from five million a year to two million, despite a fifty-per-cent increase in the world’s population during the past three decades.”
What does cholera have to do with the New Evangelization?
The USCCB describes their strategic/pastoral plan as “a journey of faith, worship and witness” which presents three opportunities for the transmission of the Christian faith:
- To engage more intently those who are faithful and need to be renewed with increased catechesis;
- To reach out to those who have never heard the gospel proclaimed; and
- To re-engage those who are baptized but have lost a living sense of the faith in their daily lives.
Just as in the days of the early Church, when Jesus sent the Twelve, and they in turn sent their disciples, the best way to accomplish these is through people talking to people. The Holy Father talking to the media, Bishops talking to priests, priests talking to the faithful, and the faithful talking to each other, both fellow Catholics and those of different faith traditions.
For me, this is where it gets scary. I have to proclaim the Good News by my words and by my actions. If it is inappropriate to speak directly of religion in my workplace (which I believe it is), it is not inappropriate to wear my crucifix, place my Holy Cards on my bulletin board, and demonstrate my loving care and concern for my co-workers and our patients. For it is in caring for others that we meet Christ face-to-face. Only by pushing through my discomfort in dealing with others, others who are often tired, overworked, frustrated, sick and suffering and forcing myself to continue picking myself up, trying yet again when my shortcomings are manifest to myself and those around me on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, can I show others that the Catholic faith is real love, a sacrificial love
As Dr. Gawande says, “To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way…We yearn for frictionless, technological solutions. But people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change.”