Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Empathy: Are We Asking For Too Much?

As my daughter approached the stage toting her miniature violin, I could feel a flutter in my chest.  My palms were sweaty and my feet started to tremble.  I hesitated while she played the first note.  My heart soared with each rhythmic movement of her bow.  I caught my breath when she reached the most difficult portion, and exhaled calmly as she nailed it.  At the end, I elatedly stood and clapped with the rest of the crowd.

I have learned just about everything I know about empathy by being a husband and father.  In no other relationship have I so acutely felt the joys and pains of another person.  Triumph, despair, guilt, surprise.  Each emotion transcending the flesh and glomming on to those in closest proximity.

But empathy, like parenting, is hard.  You have little say over what befalls your children from day to day, yet feel each painful barb.  The loss of control can be maddening for those practiced in manipulating their surroundings.  You wear your heart on your sleeve unprotected.  I suspect this is one of the main reasons many decide not to procreate.

So I find it rather ironic that we stress empathy as a character trait to idealize in our physicians.  Few among us have the emotional fortitude to process such tumultuous emotions on a grand scale.  I dare say the majority of human beings would be paralyzed by the difficult and frequently overwhelming nature of illness.  Everyday.  With every patient.  All the time.

Empathy is an act of selflessness given as a gift to those we love most.

I think it is time to ask our doctors for what they are capable of.

Kindness, patience, humility.

And occasionally.  Very occasionally.


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