On a Meeting of Selves

When I last wrote, I shared with you the beginnings of some thoughts about emotion, identity, and politics. Here, I share an excerpt of something I wrote years ago, when I was fresh out of my first two years of med school and brimming with thoughts and feelings about intimate encounters across difference:

When I was a first year medical student, a group of students and I had to practice our communication skills using standardized patient actors. In this particular case, the patient was a “difficult” person who did not want to share their information with us. As always, the goal for this interaction was to be kind, empathetic, and effective at extracting relevant details of the patient’s story.

I was the first student to interview the patient actor. His story (all invented for the purposes of the exercise) was that he was a rich, 60-something white man with alcoholism. He was coming to me because he had just been charged with a DUI, and he wanted me to help him sign some papers for his legal case. However, he was reluctant to admit that he had a drinking problem and refused to tell me what had happened. Throughout the interview, snippets of the situation were eventually revealed. He had been drinking and driving when he hit a young black girl, who ended up paralyzed from the waist down. His excuse was that “it’s so hard to see those people at night anyway.” He consistently undermined my authority and my right to be there, expressing his shock that they were letting people like me into medical school.

The fact that he was an actor was inconsequential. It felt all too real. I simply did not handle it well. Afterwards, in a room full of other students, none of whom were black, I was given feedback about my performance: I was condescending. I wasn’t compassionate. I shouldn’t let race- and gender-based comments get to me.  He admitted that he had baited me, but argued that it was my obligation to be kind to him anyway. On my best days, I agree. But such an orientation is easier said than done.

[A note: Though I learned a lot from this experience, I have complicated feelings about the educational merits of using an older white man for the explicit purpose of peppering me with microaggressions as a teaching point. But that’s a topic for another day.]

I share this story both to reveal that I am not always a shining bastion of empathy and interpersonal connection, and to highlight that the issues of empathy and love are, for me, a personal one. In that moment when I was sitting with a person who I didn’t understand, who embodied every stereotype that I could have thought of, and who so clearly was not willing to connect with me, I did not act my best self. More frustratingly, I recognized that my reaction to this patient had as much to do with my past (with other people who look like him) as it did with his behavior in that moment. As Rankine so powerfully illustrated in the quote I shared in my last post, there was too much between us that was not about us for this moment to have ever been generative. And it stoked, for me, the question about forgiveness: should I forgive him for what he represents and how he acts? Am I obligated to be kind to those who are not kind to me? Do these obligations change when we’re in a professional setting – medicine – in which care is what you are offering?

Much of my thinking, whether academic, political, or personal, is fixated on the possibility that we will ever be able to connect meaningfully with those who differ from us, particularly when our relative relationships to power are not equal. How can we realize new forms of solidarity? Is this at all possible? I hope to use the space I have here as one in which I begin the long process of making sense of identity and the limits of empathy. I am, as always, filled with more questions than answers.

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