Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Limits of Hercules

Hercules killing the hydra

Perhaps wounded healers are effective because they are more able to empathize with the wounds of the patient; perhaps it is because they participate more deeply and personally in the healing process. ~ Irvin Yalom

One of the largest steps a medical student learns to take is the one toward losing, for want of a better word, their sense of invincibility. From the outset of our education, we're confronted with a series of tasks that mirror the labors of Hercules. First, there's a matter of obtaining admission, no small feat in itself. Then there's the issue of surviving the onslaught of information in the first two years. Once in clinical rotations, the stress diminishes somewhat but there is still pressure from the drive to perform and perform well.

Getting over one hurdle after another leaves a person feeling they've accomplished something tremendous and that is absolutely true. In the clinical setting, however, we begin to discover a great deal that is anything but black and white. People refuse to fall into neatly circumscribed categories and it sometimes feels like ambiguity is omnipresent. The excitement of learning can easily be coupled with a gnawing nervousness over the magnitude of what we've gotten ourselves into.

From the standpoint of practicing the art of medicine, the awareness of weakness has an importance that transcends the awareness of strength. Empathy grows best in soil that has known pain. And it hurts to recognize when we're less than capable, when our natural abilities let us down. But that's critical because it creates within us a basis for understanding the people we wish to help.

To some, it makes no sense at all that woundedness, wherever it comes from, has the power to render us more grounded, and therefore more approachable to persons in distress. It certainly is ironic, when you think about it. From the standpoint of our national consciousness, as represented by my childhood cinematic hero, John Wayne, we should expect persons to be drawn to our strength. And that may work in the political spotlight, but in the care of persons, the opposite is the case. At its most profound level, capability is a matter of character. And character comes out of the experience of being honest with ourselves and true to what we find when we are.


(Creative Commons image of Hercules and the Hydra by ἀλέξ via Flickr; Citation from The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002, p. 107)
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