After a late night of Facebook bingeing (because sometimes, you really cannot tear your eyes away from the reactions of your “friends” to current events), I woke up one morning feeling a little emotionally bruised from the goings-on in our world, and more than a little weary to take on the onslaught of breaking news again. As any rational person would, I decided to avoid social media for a bit, in an effort to preserve my sanity.
Besides, I had work to do! I had plenty of errands to run, and patient files to review, so I started in on the first task of the day: checking emails. I was pleased to see that a potential patient who had been referred to me had decided to move forward with care for the whole family, and I was honored to be consulted on a cluster of such challenging cases.
After more emails were checked and some headway was made on the remainder of my to-do list, I decided a mindless Facebook perusal was in order. That’s when it happened, a moment that would throw me into an existential tailspin, and put into focus exactly what it means to be a physician in a world of instant global communication and a heavily divided political climate.
The patient with whom I had been conversing earlier that morning had requested to follow me on Facebook. I clicked on his profile to find, to my horror, a page filled with vitriol for humanity, including suggestions for the slaughter of refugees--parents and children alike--and other equally horrifying acts.
I felt sick to my stomach that someone could feel such disdain for children, for fellow humans, to the point of making it known publicly on social media. Then, I felt even more disgusted that I was being paid to care for an entire family of people who may feel this way or, at least, be subjected to this viewpoint. I began spiraling down an ethical rabbit hole; why is it that bakers can deny services to a same-sex couple and pharmacists can deny a birth control prescription fill based on personal beliefs, but physicians have a moral obligation to care for all? The ethical questions continued. It was intense.
From Anger to Empathy
After a well-deserved nap (because #selfcare), I listened to a TED Talk on Empathy, which got me thinking about what that word actually means. In this talk, Dylan Marron, a digital media creator, challenges himself to have offline discussions with people who send him online messages of hate. This coping mechanism has taught him something profound: that people spewing hate are in most need of empathy. But what, exactly, is empathy? He explains:
“Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. Empathizing with someone who, for example, believes that being gay is a sin doesn't mean that I'm suddenly going to drop everything, pack my bags and grab my one-way ticket to hell, right? It just means that I'm acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me.”
As physicians, we are called to a higher purpose in life--to serve humanity in all of its forms. We are held to higher standards than those in other professions--and for good reason! We are entrusted with the care of human lives, and it is our duty to shed the veil of our own experiences and cover ourselves with that of our patients, in order to use best our hearts and heads to help them. To be a physician is to answer the call to a true vocation, and it is not without its challenges. Cerebrally, we know what to do in situations that challenge us ethically--to serve fully and without prejudice--but sometimes the heart takes a little more convincing.
So, for as human as it may be to jump to defensiveness or anger toward someone whose fundamental beliefs clash with ours, it’s equally human, albeit more difficult, to eventually arrive at empathy. For as much as we may not feel up to it, we must dig in our heels and work toward this together, because I’m pretty sure empathy is what the world needs most right now.
Some Final Thoughts
I encourage you to watch the full video or read the full transcript of “How I turn negative online comments into positive offline conversations,” found here.
In case you haven’t had a chance to reflect on the Naturopathic Physician’s Oath since you read it aloud at your graduation ceremony, here it is:
...and in case you’re wondering, I turned around and donated the entirety of my patient visit fees from the previously mentioned family to RAICES (because #resist).
About the Author
Sarah Ouano is a naturopathic doctor and writer. A fierce advocate for health equity and rights of the marginalized, she frequently writes about the intersection of naturopathic medicine and public health, throwing in personal anecdotes and tasty (and practical) recipes along the way.