Wednesday, January 27, 2010

TREATING SUFFERING ISN'T ROCKET SCIENCE, BUT PROBABLY MORE USEFUL


We humans are huge beings. On the outside, physically, we’re organs and tissues, a community of superbly coordinated cells. This is no small thing in itself. But inside, we’re limitless. In our imagination we can experience anything: other times, other places, even occupy other bodies. We undoubtedly have capabilities we’ve never even thought of.

When I look at myself in a mirror, I see a guy, a lump of flesh. That lump is also the infinitesimal tip of a boundless existential cone. I’m a world of history, relationships, and meaning.

That world is what suffers when we’re sick. Anyone who’s ever been sick knows it’s always a double event. Your body, your outside, doesn’t work right, and it hurts. As for your inner world, it’s completely trashed. You’re anxious. You feel unmoored. You’re angry at this unfair universe. You imagine the most dire future for yourself, and then feel guilty for behaving so neurotically. And so on. These normal internal, emotional responses constitute most of sickness’ suffering.

Since everyone’s personally experienced this, not just one time but with every instance of sickness, why have we evolved a healthcare system in which addressing suffering is the exception rather than the rule?

We’re not constrained to treat either physical disease or suffering. There’s no reason why we can’t do both, and doing both doesn’t mean doubling our effort. Treating physical disease is a verb and treating suffering, an adverb. How we enact with sick people is how we treat their suffering.

That means first envisioning them as entire worlds out of whack and then simply listening to them. How, my friend, has your unique world been affected?

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