Book review: Mountains beyond Mountains, a biography of Paul Farmer

How did your last visit to Belize or the Philippines influence you

At twenty-three years old, on a path to becoming a doctor, Paul Farmer spent several months as a volunteer in Haiti. Like other American visitors, Paul Farmer was amazed by the jam-packed third-hand European vans and struck by the warmness of the Haitians. Unlike other Westerners, Paul Farmer turned a one-off visit into a lifelong relationship. He decided to build a health clinic in Haiti, for the poorest people in the country.

Mountains beyond Mountains tells the story of Farmer’s life. I highly recommend the book as an inspiration for living a life of service. Farmer calls his life approach pragmatic solidarity: not the life of an ascetic who attempts to achieve nirvana by meditating in solitude; but the life of a person who is out in the world helping others every minute of the day.

What did I learn from Paul Farmer? 

A deep love for all people. He helped the poorest, the ugliest, the neediest. The people others try to avoid, Farmer treats like dearest friends.

Complete, selfless dedication to a cause. Farmer would be the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. He let go of all personal comfort to spend more time with patients.

“The problem is, if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to. That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn’t have said that to you before I’d taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true.”

Courage and persistence. When Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, did not have enough money to buy drugs for patients in Haiti, Farmer would bring the medicine from the Brigham Young hospital in Boston, where he was a practicing doctor.

“Paul and Jim would stop at the Brigham pharmacy before they left for Peru and fill their briefcases with drugs. they had sweet-talked various people into letting them walk away with the drugs. […] Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Clear in communicating his views. Farmer convinced the World Health Organization to change their specified treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis all around the world. That does not happen if you do not clearly speak your mind.

“He was fresh as hell to me, but I liked him, because if you said boo and he didn’t think boo was right, he’d tell you. He was way ahead of me, on service to the poor.”

Excellent at maintaining relationships. Farmer would thank everyone personally for making donations – even the individual $10 contributions from fellow church visitors in Boston.

As a reader, I observed a though coming to mind: “How can I lead a life as impactful as Farmer?”. I don’t think that question follows from the right intention. The goal is not to be just like Paul Farmer – we should all find our own paths in life.

What we can learn, however, is to focus our work on the needs of others – not the comfort it provides to ourself; to commit to the problems we believe should be solved; and to pursue our cause with vigor and persistence, not being attached to the outcomes of our actions.