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Opinion | Elissa Ely

The steep angle of hope

The philsopher Martin Buber provided a surprising lesson at a recent free medical clinic in Brookline.Getty

One night a week, a free medical clinic is created in the sanctuary of a suburban synagogue. Between this clinic and its nearby sister, a few suburbs over, more than 2,000 patients were treated in 2018 — almost all immigrants, almost all uninsured. Providers aren’t paid, but it is clear they feel richly compensated.

An upstairs synagogue classroom is turned into the Psychiatry Department. Often, it still carries the buzz of its afternoon activity: whiteboard covered with Hebrew letters, open books laid out on a conference table, and in one anachronistic corner, a shelf of cassette tapes. You might wonder whether young students know what cassette tapes are.


You might also wonder whether these students know what transformation occurs in their classroom after dark: mothers who do not sleep or eat because their sons sit in detention centers; back-injured men despairing from disability; the bewildered and overwhelmed, the panic-stricken and enduring. Need is high, pills rarely cure the essential ailment, yet everyone is grateful to a fault for attention. Not a single rapist, thug, or murderer has come through the front desk.

On this night, some Hebrew School homework had been forgotten on the conference table. I looked down and saw a typewritten quote from Martin Buber on the top page. He is perhaps the easiest of all philosophers for young idealists to romanticize; though his theories of self are complicated, there are still some simple ones.

This is the sentence I found: “Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before. . . . If there had been someone like them in the world, there would have been no need for them to be born.“

Maybe it was part of a final exam: Explain what Buber meant. Waiting for the next patient, wondering why I always forget to bring a box of tissue when it is almost always needed, I read what the student had written. I thought afterwards that it could have been a motto for the free care clinic.


“What I believe,” he wrote, “is each person was put on this earth to serve his own purpose. On this earth.” The earnest repetition left a great impression.

This was someone accustomed to thinking with thumbs on a keyboard, and not to the ancient discipline (practiced back in the age of cassette tapes) of using a pen; his handwriting swooped upward at an angle of 45 degrees. It was as if his thoughts were approaching a summit.

I assumed, maybe unfairly, that his was a life not touched by detention centers, poverty and pain. But driving home, I saw it in my mind — the summit, that is. It was magnificently simple. On this earth, we have our own purposes, and why — barring purposes of violence — should we not be left to serve them? In impossible times, the words and their steep angle carried a tilt of irrepressible hope.

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.