Saturday, November 8, 2014

An apology for empathy in all of our human encounters

In the most recent edition of The Atlantic, Megan O'Rourke write a piece entitled, "Doctor's Tell All...And it's far worse than you think" which she references a recent book by Danielle Ofri, (an internist at Bellevue Hospital in New York) bearing the title, What Doctors Feel.
Documenting the development of both detachment and a cover-your-ass mentality in American medical practioners, O'Rourke points out a startling piece of information from the Ofri work:
The rate of severe diabetes complications in patients of doctors who rate high on a standard empathy scale, Ofri notes, is a remarkable 40 percent lower than in patients with low-empathy doctors.  There are not a plethora of different or difficult meanings of this piece of information: Empathy in doctors plays a significant and positive role in the process of reaching and retaining health among diabetics....and conversely, diabetic patients whose doctors score much lower on the empathy scale suffer more serious complications.
Perhaps you might think this piece of information is obvious to the most basic common sense. Unfortunately, while that may be true, most of the current indicators of cultural emotional values point to a gaping vacuum of empathy not only among medical doctors in America, but among too many professionals in too many offices, board rooms, court rooms, and especially classrooms. We are witnessing instead, a rise in prominence of human traits like competitiveness, objectifying the other, reducing the 'other' to a transactional actor on whom to "operate", from whom to gather information, on whom to pour the advertising, from whom to elicit the cash in the marketplace, over whom to pour the compliments in order to "establish the relationship" that will keep on giving thereby enhancing the reputation and the resume of the business executive, and ensuring him or her of a rapid climb up the proverbial ladder to the top....whatever that looks like.
Ironically, through empathy operating in full force in the relationship between the doctor and the patient, it is not only the patient who benefits; the doctor's health improves as well.
And, if that is empirically verified in the practice of medicine, is there any reason to doubt that it would also be mutually beneficial to the client and the professional in all other personal, professional and even marketplace encounters?
And yet.....everyday we read about, listen to and watch the drama of human conflict in all of its many faces, shapes and forms. The purveyors of technology apps, for example, now compete to generate the means both to cheat on one's partner and to detect such betrayal. The purveyors of video games compete to generate the most violent of encounters, thereby seducing billions from the bank accounts of millions of eager purchasers. The corporations and the universities are  engaged in providing a fertile incubator for fiscal profit and personal hubris respectively, as if they were engaged in the pursuit of the optimum values needed in both the board room and the lecture hall....occasionally dropping a few morsels of "empathy" if and when a crisis erupts that cannot be dealt with without such dollops of this "triviality" it is too commonly defined in conventional society.
I recall, in a past life, when I served as a secondary school English teacher, encountering a machismo mathematician from Glasgow, well over six feet tall, and brilliant in his intellectual capacity, hearing these words pointedly directed to the English teacher: "You are much too liberal and far too close to the students!" In the same school, during the same former life, I met the art teacher as I conversed with a student, while passing him in the corridor: "There goes Atkins dishing out soul food!" he blurted with a large smirk on his unforgettably mobile face.
Befriending an alcoholic, without knowing the depth of the hold the disease had on the victim, befriending the spouse of another alcoholic desperate for support in extricating herself from the deplorable enmeshment in which she had lived for a quarter century....there were not wise or mature decisions on my part, nor were they conventional in the corporate and politically correct manner imposed on most professionals....and perhaps they gave proof to a previous "slur" thrown by a peer that "he is kind to a fault" in reference to this scribe.
The medical profession is not alone in its determination to eradicate all empathy from the professional lives of the people it admits into the fraternity. The legal, education, accounting and certainly the business and political culture so denigrate empathy, unless and until there is an obvious trauma, that the world has come to expect empathy to be an exception to the encounters in the public arena. And it is not only an exception but it is a dangerous display of a human emotion that risks overturning those established situations that are often barely hanging by a thread. Empathy could lead to its reciprocal return; it could lead to a loss of objectivity and a potential medical misdiagnosis, (as if there were not a long list of misdiagnoses already without empathy in the mix); it could lead to seeing the other as a full human being with all of the narratives of successes and failures that comprise the biographies of each of us.
On the television, somewhat synchronistically, the American movie, The American President, with Michael Douglas and Annette Benning is playing, a movie in which the widowed president actually seeks out a female friend, an environmental lobbyist, whom he dates, to the public and political contempt of far too many, both friends and foes.
Empathy could, and often does, lead to if that were the greatest evil into which one could succumb. And, when set beside many of the conventional alternatives, like spending $4billion on television advertising in pursuit of personal and narcissistic achievement of public office (in both Senate and House of Representatives in the election completed this past week), or the conventional pursuit of hegemony in neighbouring territory, or in raping the resources of crippled countries unable to set boundaries that protect national self-respect in the face of  such corporate and political invasion, or....jealously and dishonestly protecting one's turf in the face of some invasive strategy or tactic of a current or potential competitor....empathy looks rather attractive.
We denigrate empathy because we know we cannot adequately police its consequences and implications and behind such fear are many, if not all, of the religions communities which have, for centuries, over-rated human sex and sexuality as demons to be avoided. Controlling empathy produced popular Victorian novels without sexual intimacy, yet simultaneously millions of babies. Repressing empathy is not only costing billions in a health care system that has so "sterilized" its culture (much as it sterilizes its surgical instruments to prevent the spread of bacteria)  without pausing to reflect on precisely what it was doing.
Let's re-think what we have done to repress emotion in our professional and public cultures, especially the emotion of empathy between practitioner and client....let's re-examine the implications of just how far we have gone down the road to our own unconsciousness of how we so distrust our deepest emotions.
If empathy is to re-emerge as a legitimate component in our personal and our cultural lives, we are all going to have to resist the urge to repress empathy in our own lives, both personal and professional. And that will be very threatening to the establishment in all of our corporations and our professions...and that danger will prove to be worth the discomfort and the discombobulation that will ensue from the release of emotion from its repressed vault, the heart that beats in each of our chests.

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