That's what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder thought when he began researching Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health (PIH), the public health organization Farmer and friends founded in 1987. Kidder's research birthed Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, an insightful look at Farmer's efforts to bring healthcare and affordable medication to parts of the world where people live without electricity, clean water, and adequate food.
The journalist looked at Boston-based PIH's books and interviewed Farmer's family, coworkers, critics, even old girlfriends. He wanted to find the catch-the detail that would trip the wire of dishonesty or scandal. He couldn't find a catch, he said, because there wasn't one.
Farmer and his organization were exactly what they portrayed themselves to be. While that was great news for the tuberculosis or AIDS patient in Haiti, Africa, Russia, Peru and the other places PIH works, it was disconcerting news for Kidder. How good could one man possibly be?
The problem with goodness, Kidder told first-year master's of divinity students at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, is that it makes you think about things about which you'd rather remain ignorant. Kidder came to Candler October 10 to address first-year students, all of whom had read Mountains Beyond Mountains and discussed the book in the context of their advising groups.
"Part of the goal was to have a common reading to give some focus to the groups," explained Dr. Carol Lakey Hess, associate professor of religious education at Candler. "I think, then, each advising group team used it a little differently. We all love texts, and we love to engage them. My sense is that we lived in Paul Farmer's world (through Kidder's eyes), we learned from Farmer, we argued and struggled with Farmer, and we looked at our own lives in the process."
Giving first-year students a common experience allows them to discuss how to translate models of faithfulness into their own lives, said Dr. Ian McFarland, associate professor of systematic theology.
Kidder remembers discussing an early draft of the book with his longtime editor. The editor noted: "There's a problem here. It's called the problem of goodness."
It was Farmer's paucity of vices that made him an "improbable" main character, according to Kidder. Farmer's goodness, in fact, can make some feel uncomfortable.
"Good provokes and forces us to think about things we'd rather not think about," Kidder stated, noting that we tend to push away virtuousness that exceeds our own. "I tried to find Paul Farmer's foibles," he said, adding that he wished he had found more.
Kidder waited six years from the time he met Farmer before beginning work on the book. "If I started following this guy around, [I knew] he was going to disturb my peace of mind. And he did." The time with Farmer, however, was the most exhilarating of his life.
Kidder saw the virtues of Farmer and PIH on multiple continents as he traveled with the Harvard-educated physician through the central plateau of Haiti, Moscow's central prison and slums outside of Lima, Peru. Kidder tried to make his writing vivid and take the reader along with him on his travels. "Collectively, those trips were like a harrowing of hell," he reflected, but there was no way to write the book without seeing Farmer at work.
"It was in those settings of extreme suffering that Farmer's extreme passion for alleviating suffering made perfect sense to me, a kind of sense it wouldn't make in a seminar room at Harvard or Emory," the author said.
Even in a lecture hall, far removed from the poverty and reality of where PIH serves populations that others were willing to ignore, Candler's students were able to see the product of Farmer's work. Kidder showed pictures of pre-treatment patients who were so thin that one wondered how their bones had not ripped through their skin. One of them was an 11-year-old boy named Alcante who was being treated for tuberculosis. The after-treatment photo showed a child that few would have recognized. His eyes were bright, and when he smiled, his cheeks could almost be called chubby. It was PIH's version of an extreme makeover.
There are of thousands of Alcantes, people that Farmer and PIH have reclaimed from the desolate intersection of poverty and acute or chronic illness. It's because of them that Kidder now speaks on behalf of PIH, trying to raise money and awareness of public health issues. After thousands of miles and countless hours with Farmer, Kidder's reasoning for this advocacy is simple: "We're all connected, all of us, in the human tribe."