Have you ever wondered what is it that makes us human? What are the particular aspects that make you and me different; not only from other animals, but from every other one of the seven billion people alive today on this planet? The permutations are enormous. However, it is the small variations in physical and personal attributes which allow us to identify one person from the next.
Yet, amidst this pot pourri of the world’s humanity there are emotional traits which allow us to empathise with our next door neighbour, sympathise with struggling tribes in Africa, go to war with other countries, or fall in love with someone far removed from our own community. These are the complex peculiarities which bind us all together in that group called human-kind or humanity.
Stemming from the same Latin origin as the word ‘human’ is the term ‘humanities’; the academic disciplines that involve the study of that which we term the ‘human condition’. Included within this group are literature, art, music, languages, law, history, philosophy and ethics. By increasing our knowledge of these topics we can begin to really understand what it is to be human.
However, here lies a conundrum. We often turn to the doctor, and most specifically the GP, for help at times of both physical and emotional difficulty with the expectation that he or she will understand what it is that we are experiencing. After all, that is what doctors are trained to do, isn’t it? Paradoxically, the reality is that this is one area where doctors have the least training, and the problem starts early on when we are choosing A Level subjects. Traditionally, budding medical students are encouraged to study biology, chemistry and physics; three sciences that assist us to understand the physical nature of the body, and enable us to diagnose and repair it when something has gone wrong. We are academically forced, at a formative stage, to abandon those subjects which are equally important to achieve a rounded education and produce experts in understanding human-kind.
This omission is what has led some universities to now include a humanities module within their training programme for medical undergraduates. In addition, it is now possible to study for a Master of Arts degree in medicine and literature; investigating the interaction between the two disciplines. After all, some of the world’s greatest authors knew a thing or two about what being human really entails. Think, for example, of the works of Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), James Joyce (Ulysses), Thomas Hardy (The Woodlanders), Charles Dickens (Bleak House), Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre), D H Lawrence ( Women in Love), E M Foster (A Passage to India), and Evelyn Waugh (Decline and Fall). The list is endless. All these authors explored the emotional depths of humanity; that is why their works have found a lasting place in our collective souls; their characters are reflections of what it is to be human; to be you and me in all our times of trial and happiness.
So next time you wonder whether your GP is up to date, don’t ask which medical journals he or she is reading; ask whether your GP has recently read a classical novel. If the answer is ‘yes’, you may have found a doctor who really understands what being human is all about.
First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Wednesday 15th June 2011