Childbirth Changes You

December 14, 2007

Two Paths: Childbirth and Sympathy and Empathy

There are two words in the English language that even dictionaries have trouble distinguishing between.

"Sympathy" suggests an understanding of and attention to the grief-stricken. "Empathy," however, describes a capacity for participating in another's suffering.

Sympathy is common. It used to be a natural aspect of human kindness; it has evolved into almost a politeness. It would seem inhuman not to sympathize for those whose tragedies move us. It would be impolite. The impoliteness of a lack of sympathy is an interesting concept. It's almost as if we've been trained in the appropriate responses so as to not offend others with a lack of sensitivity. Sympathy is the polite response from sensitive creatures such as we are. We can sympathize with the anonymous families of victims of crime we read about in the newspaper. But truly we cannot feel the actual pain they feel. Nor should we expect to.

My wife knows an identical twin who when she was pregnant was called by her sister who told her she was going into labor. She was right as it turned out. How many times have we known an elderly man or woman who died only to have the spouse die within weeks? Certainly we've all come across instances like these. There are ties that bind stronger than we can appreciate. Haven't we as parents wished we could "take over" for a child's pain, like it were as easy as a change of shift? When a mother comforts an injured child, she feels the pain--participates in her child's suffering as hard as she can, hoping to dilute it's sting by sharing. Now we're talking about what it really means to be human, for this is empathy.

As an obstetrician, I've seen it countless times--that special moment when a mother for the first time holds her newborn that she felt squirming inside of her all those months. That first touch of her child is like nothing else in the world. It is an empathic love. It's a love that's different from the love she shares with her husband. It's direct and true--straight through from being to being. New fathers are empaths as well.

Children Change Everything

Suddenly the world is quite different. Suddenly it's not that important when someone cuts you off in traffic. It is a special quality when someone can make that jump from sympathy to empathy. It does happen, even to people remotely connected to the objects of their empathies. At one time being a doctor was referred to as being "in the noble profession." There were standards of behavior and skill that were expected. But there were also standards of caring that were assumed. In these days of managed care and doctors' livelihoods being crammed into business bottlenecks, many physicians have burned out. Was it because they could no longer make that jump between sympathy and empathy? Or was it because they feel there's no need for empathy in today's modern medical climate? The art of medicine has been itemized, categorized, budgetized, prioritized, and down-sized. But the empathy still needs to be there. It's what made doctors want to be doctors in the first place. And no matter how the art of medicine has been reduced to spreadsheets and bottom lines, don't think that doctors who still like their patients and whose patients still like them back don't experience empathy when confronted with a complication in a patient's condition. The joys of practicing medicine have a price in the concept of empathy. Empathy is part of the art of medicine. Empathy is powerful. Empathy burns calories. Mothers and fathers know it. Doctors better know it as well, for without it their "art of medicine" deteriorates from Rembrandt to connect-the-dots.

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