Dr. Jeff Kane: Silence as medicine
I was facilitating a support group for physicians one morning. Participants spoke of their professional experiences and joys, and their stresses and dissatisfactions, as well.
One, a family practice doc, said, “I don’t know how I can go on. I have this huge office overhead and employees who rely on me, but our payments get cut more every month. I’m working my tail off but losing more money than I make. It’s killing me and wrecking my family.” He began to cry. The room went silent. Other participants stared at their shoes. For a full minute, no one said a thing.
A doc sitting beside me whispered, “You’re the facilitator. Facilitate.”
Oh yeah, I thought. I’m the facilitator. I better facilitate. So I said something. I don’t remember what it was, but that’s not important. What was important was that when I broke the excruciating silence, relief filled the room. Someone else began to speak, and the weeping doc settled down.
Breaking that silence somehow didn’t feel right to me then, and now, many years later, I know why: if I’d allowed it to persist, the conversation would have deepened. When the doc cried, I’m certain most other participants cried inwardly, too, since his sad situation wasn’t unique. A few minutes in silence can allow us to sense deeper emotions honestly in order for us to respond effectively rather than from stale habit.
We tend to believe, in our busy culture, that we communicate only when we’re actively speaking or listening. But between those acts is usually a short intermission in which we do neither. This is where we have the opportunity to make fresh meaning of what we just heard, and then perhaps behave differently. Indeed, our most important communication is with ourselves.
It’s easy to navigate our daily life with habit. But time changes everything, so some habits — so ingrained we no longer recognize them as habits — are obsolete. Do we want to stick with those, or might we want to generate behaviors more appropriate to the present?
Why do I bring this up at all, anyway? Isn’t this supposed to be a medical column? Shouldn’t I just be encouraging you to get your flu shot and eat leafy greens?
Our state of health depends on more than medical considerations. I’ve written this here before, and need to mention it again: ask your doctor what proportion of his/her clientele suffers from disorders than began in lifestyle, such as poor diet, inadequate exercise, toxic relationships, unrewarding work, and so on. Our lifestyle, whatever it happens to be, is the sum of our habits.
So don’t just do something; sit there. Quietly.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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