“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
(An excerpt from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”)
The advice that Atticus Finch offers to his young daughter Scout about empathy in the book To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the phrases I love. Scout continuously makes efforts to put into practice her father’s advice and at times fails but finally understands Boo Radley’s position at the close of the book. To me, a psychiatrist, the above phrase is like the Buddhist textbook which tells me not to give up trying to empathize completely because it is impossible but instead to keep trying to understand with continuous efforts rather than measuring others’ lives and their values as it is impossible for me to fully understand others’ minds, at the first place. Would there by anything more difficult than trying to understand other people?
Moving to the U.S after 30 years old and working as a psychiatrist, I meet patients who have led completely different lives than mine – different races, languages, and cultures -every day. I try to emphasize as much as possible with patients who seem to have nothing in common with me and they trust me, the Asian male psychiatrist whom they have seen for the first time and open their minds. Likewise, the seemingly so awkward doctor and patients resonate and sync just like musical instruments of an orchestra.
We sometimes get ourselves mistaken that we need to have similar experiences to be able to understand someone. However, if the experiences are similar, then the individual’s own feelings and memories could be so strong that clear empathizing with others’ feelings may be hindered and difficult. In emphasizing, what is more important than the experience is the willingness to help others, and to turn off the self-centered button for the time being. This is the biggest lesson I have learnt from my experiences of emphasizing and connecting with patients.