Friday, June 18, 2010

Hospital Experience #18: Karen Armstrong - Compassion and Pain

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This eighteenth post will reflect on my hospital experience in relation to what Karen Armstrong says about compassion and pain in her memoir The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, in which she describes her adjustment to life in the world after seven years as a Catholic nun.

In her study of world religions, Karen Armstrong finds that compassion is at the heart of all. Compassionate behavior is expressed in the Golden Rule: Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you. Karen prefers this ancient Jewish expression of the Golden Rule, asking us to refrain from what would cause others pain or discomfort.

How do we know what may cause pain or discomfort to another? Karen Armstrong says that we learn this by observing what causes pain or discomfort to us. Compassion means feeling with another, standing in another's shoes and feeling what it is like to be that person. Karen says that nothing teaches us better how another may feel than our own pain. When something happens that causes us pain, it is well to take careful note and to resolve never to cause such pain to another. This, Karen says, is how pain can be redeemed - by using it to build compassion. Otherwise, pain is wasted.

I found that, in the hospital, I wanted to be treated in a kind, caring, professional, and dignified manner. I experienced pain when Nurse Dreadful did not treat me in these ways. I experienced comfort when other nurses did. I am not a medical professional, so it is not likely that I will be called upon to treat hospital patients in kind, caring, professional, and dignified ways. However, I am a teacher - and my students would certainly appreciate being treated in kind, caring, professional, and dignified ways. They would appreciate seeing that I welcome them, that I am happy to see them, that I have the skills to teach them well, that I take their concerns and questions seriously, that I evaluate their work fairly, that I have time for them, that I am available to them, that I respect them and deeply value their contributions to the class.

I think that it is extremely helpful for professionals of all kinds to be in the position of those they serve - for medical professionals to be patients, for example, and for teachers to be students. This builds compassion. Medical professionals need to know what it feels like to be handled by strangers, and teachers need to know what it feels like to struggle with an unfamiliar subject. Language teachers need to know what it feels like to be confronted with a new language and culture, and writing teachers need to know what it feels like to be confronted with a writing assignment, a deadline, and a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

These are important lessons from the hospital and from Karen Armstrong - use pain to build compassion, and put yourself in the shoes of those you serve.


  1. It always helps to experience things from someone else's perspective.

  2. It certainly does. I've heard that empathetic kindergarten teachers, in preparing their classrooms, like to get down on the floor and see how the room feels from a five-year-old's height. This helps them to arrange the room appropriately for their class.