We Started Teaching Premedical Students How To Care. Then We Realized Everyone Needs To Learn To Do It.

08/28/2017 02:54 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2017

Recent events in Charlottesville mandate the retelling of another, related story.  In 1971 Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a white KKK leader, were thrust together onto a Durham school committee formed to quell building racial tensions around desegregation. They hated each other. But then something changed, giving way to an unlikely lifelong friendship: they began to care for each other.

“…in the first five days of the meetings, we had a choir come in…and do some singing. And C.P. was sitting there, and first he started clapping his hands. And he wasn’t clapping his hands even along with us; he would clap an odd beat. So I grabbed his hand and trying to show him how to clap along with us at the same time till we learned him how to clap.” -- Ann Atwater

“‘Somethin’ was happening to me. It was almost like bein’ born again.” ― C.P. Ellis

Remarkably, C.P. Ellis’s experience with Ann Atwater led him to tear up his KKK card, renounce his membership, and become an improbable civil rights advocate. 

Atwater and Ellis took an exceptional path to caring—can we generalize their experience?  This is a central question of our time.  Because we are two physicians who teach undergraduates respect, care, and compassion, we think we have one response: teach adults how to care. 

We first set out to teach premedical students about the intersection of compassion and medicine, but two things surprised us after we started.  First, we found that the practice of medicine was more lens than subject, a special way of looking at the giving of care rather than a bounded place to which it is inescapably relegated.  Second, we realized that all students, not just premedical, were finding in it a practical education devoted to the vocation of being human. 

We have since come to believe that caring is a competency that falls off life’s curriculum far too early, despite its centrality to society.

One early notion of caring comes from the Roman myth of Cura.  At a riverbank, Cura fashions mud into a human form, then asks that it be named after her.  Terra, the earth goddess, and Jupiter, who granted life to the figure, both want humanity for themselves, but judicial Saturn decides that death would return the human spirit to Jupiter and the human body to Terra; Cura, or Care, would define the human life.  In other words, the myth instructs us that care defines our humanity.

Inextricable from Cura’s buoyant notion of caring is a heavier version, where caring is work.  It is the solicitude we feel when we shoulder the loads of others’ hard times.  Sir Luke Fildes’s painting, The Doctor, epitomizes it for us.  The dark room, the pensive and forward leaning stance, the sitting and not going anywhere anytime soon, the fallen hand of the child.  In this one frame is a man searching the depths of humanity—searching his own soul—for some answer to help this dying child.  We know that somewhere welling under his lids are tears, we know that his diaphragm is struggling to release a deep sigh, and we know that the girl’s tiny outstretched hand will next be enveloped by his own.  His silence is preemptive; it says, “I am here.”  One feels his powerlessness, yet one feels the power of his care.

The Doctor, Sir Luke Fildes, 1891
Tate Modern
The Doctor, Sir Luke Fildes, 1891

A common introspection that we hear from our students is, “can you imagine?”  Can you imagine what it feels like?  To be the girl?  To be her father, helpless in the shadows?  To be the doctor?  Can you imagine?  The Doctor speaks to all of us, no matter what we value or do, precisely because it forces us to imagine.  Imagining what it would be like is called empathy, which is the starting point of caring and critical for providing value to all aspects of society, no matter how mundane or profound.  Underlying the successes of the iPhone, or the failures of Google Glass, as small examples, was the ability or inability to see who people are and what they want.  This is the mundane.  The profound is that the most caring, compassionate societies are the happiest ones.  As the myth of Cura tells us, humanity is contingent on care.

We don’t profess to know how to teach people to care, but we have learned something through trying: stories are the sine qua non of teaching compassion.  They are both mirror and lens, simultaneously reflecting life back to us and providing new ways of seeing it—by magnifying, focusing, or even distorting.  Stories force us to imagine what it would be like,  in so doing teaching us something about life, about ourselves, and about our engagement with the world.  If man is an island, then stories are the bridges that connect us.

We constantly and explicitly teach children to care—we’ll call this Caring 101.  But then where is the advanced class?  It has been hidden, implied in our adult lives.  To children we make the expectation of caring clear and praise it when we see it, but this is hardly true of adults.  Our developing brains were expected over time to master caring, one of the hardest things we do as humans, but all the while we rarely heard the learning process or the competency called out by name.  Is this the right way? 

We say no, for two reasons.  First, an explicit curriculum for our young adults signals importance and priority.  Caring matters.  Not only because it makes one a better child, friend, spouse, parent, neighbor, colleague, or competitor, but because it unleashes the capacity to solve humanity’s problems in immeasurable ways.  Second, we have seen how teaching adults to care works.  Yes, there is hard evidence, but much still remains anecdotal—and this is not to be discounted.  We have personally watched young adults’ perspectives turn from inward to outward, apathy change to fervor, and a yearning to talk and be seen replaced by a yearning to listen and see.  That is, we have watched young adults become more caring.

It is all too rare that we witness humanity overcome hatred with care.  Without being forced to share an experience that would enable empathy, Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis very well may not have overcome their contempt.  Life was their educator.  But stories like theirs are outliers.  It is time to purposefully make those stories the norm.  Can you imagine touching hateful hands to help them find a gospel rhythm?  Or standing alone to reject a society’s expectations because your heart tells you that you have been deceived?  Vulnerability is scary.  It would be hard to do.  When we imagine, we have unknowingly begun the hard work of caring.  Perhaps it is time to make our expectations to care explicit and start asking our young adults to imagine what it would be like.

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