The ancient Greeks were one of the first groups of philosophers to recognize and describe the complexity of love. Eros: an intense, passionate form of love. Philia: a deep friendship or affection. Philautia: love for one’s self. Agape: an unconditional love for humanity.
These same complexities in love forms described by the Greeks play an important role in how we treat our patients in medicine.
Eros allows us to have the passion and intensity to pursue several years of training to achieve our goals and our competence to intellectualize patient care and to maintain the discipline to sharpen our diagnostic and technical abilities regardless of the challenges we may face. Philia affords us the ability to develop camaraderie with our colleagues and relationships with our patients to working together towards our mutual goals of healing.
I’ve previously written about how the importance of love and respect for oneself in medicine, or the concept of philautia — loving and taking care of oneself in order to truly have the capacity to serve others, recognizing one’s own accomplishments, and growing rather than punishing ourselves for our mistakes — are as an important quality of a physician.
Another integral quality is agape: the concept of agape was described as the most selfless form of love — the love for everyone around us — whether it be our loved ones, our acquaintances, our enemies or strangers regardless of circumstance. It describes the capacity to selflessly and impartially care for others beyond boundaries.
In Latin, the concept is referred to as “caritas” or charity. In Buddhism, the idea is known as “metta” or a universal loving kindness. Agape, to me, is a form of love with the deepest level of profundity, an insurmountable level of maturity and selflessness and the purest form of altruism. It recognizes the ability to dedicate oneself sacrificially to the service of humanity.
As medical staff members seeing patients day to day, we often allow our hectic schedules and the frequent antagonism we face to cause us severe burnout. We allow the negativity we may receive from patients demanding excessive pain medications or what we believe to be unnecessary medical care, the anger of suffering or their loved ones watching them suffering to impact us, jade us and impact our ability to continue to provide selfless love.
We then retreat to providing technical care and compassion rather than the connectivity of agape. However, providing for a patient entails more than simply diagnosing and treating, but to also recognize the suffering vulnerability of each patient and their families and provide for them in a deeper manner.
To me, agape means having the fortitude not only to empathize with patients or to provide compassionate care but to also habitually understand that each patient’s reactions may stem from their physical or mental suffering, past or current. To develop the ability to connect on a more spiritual level with the sufferer’s emotions despite their behaviors to truly be a healer. To put oneself in the shoes of each individual, remembering that everyone we meet is a product of what life has created for them.
I’ve watched several caregivers embody the purest form of agape by sacrificially caring for another human being and dedicating their lives to attending to every need — whether it be alleviating their pain and providing a gentle touch or a soft voice to mollify their fears. The more caregivers I’ve encountered, the more I’ve strived to incorporate agape, as they do, in my medical practice and my approach to life.
Everyone in the health care system plays a significant role in providing humanity and agape for patients and their families. Whether it be the reassuring voice of the receptionist who first greets the patient and puts them at ease, the gentle manner of the intake nurse who settles the patient and family in, the transportation technician who moves a fearful patient from one part of the hospital to another or the physician who understands their patients’ pain and treats them with humanity — we all have a role to play in providing agape.
I may have felt frustrated many times by patients who seemingly direct what seems to be unnecessary anger towards myself and other medical staff members. Now, I try to see each moment as an opportunity to understand others further, and to commit myself to deliberately providing the most proverbial form of agape love towards each suffering patient.
Pooja N. Gidwani is a hospitalist.
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