I remember one day shortly after my husband and I had first met when we were chatting over Skype, and the conversation turned to our careers. Quite promptly he, at the time a third year dental student, asked me if I would be his patient. Being a third year medical student myself with a gaping dearth of medical experience, I did not hesitate to say no, of course not. It upset him, I could tell, and even while reassuring him that I thought he would make a wonderful clinician and I would certainly allow him to pick out my dentist, I stuck to my guns and refused to accept his offer of care – I could not understand why he would be willing to treat family.
You see, in medicine, we do not treat our own. Putting aside my lack of knowledge at the time, objectivity in the face of a sick loved one is uniformly considered to be at least difficult, if not impossible – a fact I recently realized when, dragging my husband to a specialist after a 3-week stint of coughing and sore throat unaffected by antibiotics, I found myself scanning his chest X-ray for mediastinal lymphadenopathy, terrified he had lymphoma.
He likely has Strep throat and simply needed stronger antibiotics, Alhamdulillah, and I am still a naive intern with just enough knowledge to know what could happen but not enough to know when I’m right – a precarious place to be. But put together this bias with the guilt that would inevitably come with wondering, in the face of life and death situations, whether it was your fault should something go wrong – and you can understand why even after being fully trained, we simply do not treat our own.
He understands this, too, after 2 years of a marriage into which we are still settling that often feels the same way it must feel for a newborn calf stumbling over its own legs – surprising, scary, confusing, joyous all at once. And I understand now how in his profession, the bulk of dental learning and training is completed in 3rd and 4th years during which dental students actively manage patients at the level a medical student only experiences during residency. That is after all why they, unlike us, emerge with a full license to practice. I understand now why he could have taken my rejection as a sign of doubt in his skill. And he understands how I, acutely aware of my own ineptitude as a third year, could have doubted him.
We laugh about it now when we tell our little story, but I am sharing it today in the spirit of a bigger picture as I realize with every passing day how much there is to truly, fully understanding another human being – and how we have barely begun to scratch the surface. I look back now at the beautiful, blessed, chaotic beginning, and it strikes me how much I didn’t know. How impatient I was, how eager to achieve the woozy, drunken fairytale in which work, bills, chores, even sleep didn’t seem to have a role. How short-sighted I was to think that simply speaking your truth, without compromise and patience, would be enough to make your partner understand and even agree with it.
How quickly I had said no to a budding dentist who presented me with an offer I didn’t recognize, not realizing that perhaps his reality was different from my own.
Thinking back on the blissful, foolish headiness that characterized those first few months, I said to him the other day, “You know, I was crazy about you.”
“You’re not anymore?”
I considered. “I am, but I guess I don’t want to say it because I don’t know whether you still feel that way.”
He looked at me, decided he believed me, and responded that he thought he loved me more now than before.
“But didn’t you love me at the beginning?”
He shook his head slightly. “No, not really, not like now.”
I asked why. And he replied, with the straightforwardness I have come to expect, social convention be damned, “I didn’t know you then.”
He’s right, which is something I admit more the longer I am married, and his comment illustrates the challenge that is especially pronounced in a more traditional Muslim marriage, in which you really only get to truly know your partner after you have said “I do.” Most of us I imagine say it with a fair amount of confidence that our partners are not ax murderers with off shore bank accounts, but beyond an initial assumption that they must be good people because of X Y and Z, we don’t get the chance to truly learn them. And let’s face it, that is simply not enough trust on which to build a life.
So where and how do you find more?
I have a drive to understand, in that when I can empathize or identify with a concept, register it in my head and see the logic behind it, I achieve a sense of peace and of what to do next. This is a fact that has served me well in academics, but not so much in life; people don’t come with instructions, and you cannot simply memorize a chapter and get everything right, even after years together. And as my husband put it, if you have to understand or see to believe, if you need proof of something, it’s not really trust, is it?
The deeper understanding more often than not comes not with drawn-out explanations but rather with the knowledge that automatically accumulates when you allow yourself to be fearless enough to earn it – to take the plunge before you truly, unequivocally know the nuances of a person’s personality, the way (s)he acts when (s)he’s hungry/tired/sick/frustrated. It comes with the realization that it is a disservice to your partner to react rashly and assume the worst and, it follows, with the patience to observe and to give benefit of the doubt. The trust comes – not with words, but with time. And the fearlessness to wait comes from within yourself in the relationship that you have built with God. It comes ultimately from having never walked before, not knowing how, but trying still with the faith that He has put the ability in your clumsy legs to find their footing. In both the courage to take that first step and in the Guidance that inevitably follows, I see the ultimate miracle.