Empathy and Stress Illness (1)

Empathy, the ability to feel what it is like to be another human being, is a key diagnostic tool in the arsenal of clinicians who diagnose stress illness.  (You can read a series of posts about this by clicking on the tag ’empathy’ below.)

Enlarging your experience with humanity through daily patient care is probably the most important foundation for developing empathic ability.  But I also learn a lot from writers and film directors who can capture a slice of life in their works, and take me a long way from my medium-sized American city in the process.

A classic example is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux 1997), the story of a little girl from a small Laotian cultural group called the Hmong.  The girl had epileptic seizures which were viewed significantly differently by her family and by her Sacramento physicians.  The outcome is both eye-opening and tragic.

Another example is the film Live and Become (2005) directed by the Romanian Radu Mihaileanu.  It opens with the death of an Ethiopian Jewish (Falasha) child  in a refugee camp in Sudan.  He and his mother were waiting for transport to Israel.  In the same camp is a Christian woman who sees no future for herself or her 9 year old son.  She prevails on the boy to pretend to be Jewish and accompany the bereaved mother, whom she does not know.  The Christian woman tells her son to “go, live and become” as he tearfully joins the Falashas.  The Falasha mother is herself dying but takes the boy, and gives him a Jewish name and the rudiments of her culture before succumbing soon after their arrival in Israel.

The film follows the boy through the next 20 years as he struggles to make his way in an unfamiliar culture and to define his identity.  At the conclusion, your understanding of humanity has been enlarged in a way no textbook could replicate.

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