3 Lessons from Uncle Dirk’s Hospital Visits

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Here’s a story we all need to hear. Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News penned a heartwarming feature about Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki’s yearly visit to Children’s Medical Center. Townsend’s piece describes how this was the first time Nowitzki had allowed a reporter to be present. He preferred to make his visits without any flashy press releases or fanfare, instead focusing on the children, their parents, and the hospital staff who serve them.

“On this day, Uncle Dirk will visit kids with brain tumors; kids awaiting bone-marrow transplants to fight leukemia and sickle cell anemia; an infant heart transplant patient; and a 6-month-old, 8-month-old and 2-year-old who have never lived a day outside a hospital.”

The point person in charge of Nowitzki’s visits, Thresa Belcher, says he normally visits close to 20 children, asking the parents ahead of time to provide wish lists so he can bring them individualized presents:

“He doesn’t care how long he’s here. We all know he may be here four hours. He may be here five hours. Whatever it takes to see every kid and give them the time they deserve.”

One particular encounter stood out to me. 4 year old Lizzy Hock, a Down syndrome patient, was recently diagnosed with leukemia and has been hospitalized ever since:

“Sorry, we’re just a little star-struck,” Lizzy’s mom, Angela, says. “Don’t be, don’t be,” Uncle Dirk says. Fortunately, Uncle Dirk has been told Lizzy is a big Frozen fan, as is his 3-year-old daughter Malaika. Uncle Dirk helps Lizzy unwrap a 39-inch Elsa doll, personally snips all the annoying plastic ties and lays Elsa across Lizzy’s blanket-covered legs. “I like him. Lot,” Lizzy says to her mom of Uncle Dirk.”

I’d recommend you take the time to read the entire story, but I want to highlight 3 lessons I think we can learn from this bright tale of “Uncle Dirk’s” kindness and generosity: time, attention, and attitude.

Time: One of the elements of Nowitzki’s visits that the hospital staff kept bringing up was the amount of time he spends with each child. In the season of Advent, one of the dispositions we want to cultivate as Christians is a patient waiting. Time is the great ingredient that is essential to seeing this virtue flower within us. Nowitzki’s exchanges with each child remind us that the most meaningful parts of interpersonal relationships usually happen in the quiet spaces after the initial “hello’s.” The same principle is true as we wait before our Lord. Sarah Clarkson captures this brilliantly in an advent blog post:

“My soul is widened by quiet, stilled by honesty, made spacious with recognition of my need. I become a great dwelling space waiting to be lit by Love. Only in that waiting, that ready hunger, that yearning, can I then receive the gift of Christmas to the full.”

Attention: How easy would it be for Nowitzki to simply gather a cartload of generic boys and girls toys and distribute them on the fly to each child? I think it’s particularly revealing that he takes the initiative to find out what each child really wants. Many times as Christians we revert to thinking that God is a distant, benign grandfather rather than the Creator of each of our unique attributes and characteristics. We then lapse into a vague, generalized form of preparing for Advent. The lesson from Uncle Dirk, though, is that love shown and love received is always specific and individual in nature, as Peter Kreeft explains:

“The object of love is a person, and every person is an individual. No person is a class, a species, or a collection. There is no such thing as the love of humanity because there is no such thing as humanity… “Humanity” never shows up at your door at the most inconvenient time. “Humanity” is not quarrelsome, alcoholic, or fanatical… “Humanity” is never slimy, swarmy, smarmy, smelly, or smutty. “Humanity” is so ideal that one could easily die for it. But to die for your neighbor…—unthinkable. Except for love.” (from his book Three Philosophies of Life)

Attitude: If you were a hospital worker and you heard a star athlete was stopping by, you’d probably expect a caravan of cameras and reporters. In short, a show. The striking thing about Nowitzki’s visits, though, have been how he’s not wanted people to know about them. He’s simply wanted to help alleviate the pain of the children and their families for a few hours. The visits reveal a gratitude and desire to give back that is rooted in a deep humility. Christmas so easily turns into a series of parties and commercialized cheerfulness. When we are cultivating the spirit of Advent within our hearts, though, we open ourselves to see the full spectrum of both our lives and others, and how Christ meets us at every single place:

“And yet, God in Christ flung Himself over the chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. This yearly celebration of that fact gives all of us permission to acknowledge the paradoxes and seeming discrepancies of life—to open our hearts and hands to the life that is, to the gifts just waiting to be mined in our present circumstances. To the Light the darkness just cannot comprehend or overcome, and the Dawn that knows no setting.” (Lanier Ivester)

The point of this article is not to say “hey, look at Dirk, and try to be like that”, even though we would all be better off if we did. Instead, however, push deeper to appreciate the reminders in the story of the love of our Savior, Jesus. We can all learn and grow in our capacity to both give and receive love, and Advent is the perfect season to do so.