“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” ~ Dalai Lama.
If you were to ask me whether I was an arts or sciences kind of student I would immediately select the sciences. Most of the subjects I sat in my Cambridge ‘O’ (for ordinary) Level exams, and all of those I sat at ‘A’ (Advanced) Level were sciences. For current students in Jamaica those British based exams have been replaced by Caribbean ones, and the names of both the exams and the subjects have changed almost beyond recognition. But the tradition remains, to have students study for and sit standardized exams after 10th and 12th grade. If they wish to leave school after tenth and start working they may do so. Usually the 12th grade exams are what gain you access to tertiary education.
But the sciences to me were solid, they were based on empirically proven facts and would translate into equally solid job opportunities. I had rejected the thought of going to university, nursing schools at the time (in the British system) were hospital based, a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing was a strange concept, obviously pushed by people who didn’t really want to touch a patient, they just wanted to study the theory of nursing! (We were trained to be deeply suspicious of such people, and treated them with disdain when they appeared on the hospital wards).
The arts, on the other hand, were for people who weren’t really serious about life, they (like those University nursing students) were more interested in discourse than practicality, they had their heads in the clouds, discussing ancient (dead) philosophers and studying pentameters and sonnets and such. How would they ever get a job?
It never occurred to me that a ‘well-rounded’ individual (the term always suggested someone who indulges in too many calories) cannot be one-dimensional, they cannot pursue one branch without visiting the other. It was years later, after I had given up fighting and embarked once more upon formal education (in a university or two or three) that I began to examine my beliefs, my prejudices. I was, after all, an avid reader, a lover of poetry and fiction, I dabbled at writing. How could I pretend that was at heart a scientist, trusting facts only, seeing a world in black and white, it was either or, what they call ‘binary’ now. Life had taught me nothing if it was not that the world is nuanced; there is often much going on behind the scenes that cannot be explained by science. And if you don’t know a person’s history, you cannot begin to show them empathy and compassion.
I was introduced to the word ‘aesthetic’ as a way of knowing for a nurse. This was when I was in post-graduate school, and having to grapple with philosophy, with a whole new vocabulary, and finding huge holes in my education to that point. A nurse wrote her dissertation on the ‘ways of knowing’ of a nurse. Carper wrote that a nurse knows through personal experience; through empirics (that which has been shown to be effective); through an ethical lens (using her/his prior value system) and finally through aesthetics. This last concept perhaps the hardest to define. In everyday language when we talk about the aesthetics of a thing we are referring to the artistic appearance. But the word itself comes from the Greek word meaning perception by the senses, (if you think of the opposite: anesthetic, it makes sense – to be without feeling). And if we apply the word ‘aesthetics’ to mean using all of your senses, then it makes perfect sense for a nurse. If you have ever been at the bedside of a patient in any kind of distress, all of those senses are needed to assess, evaluate, and plan a course of action.
But applying it to everyday life, I can see the word ‘aesthetics’ referring to the humanities, the art of truly living. Some nursing programs insist that students complete classes in humanities before they embark on the core nursing courses. Students visit art galleries, read classic literature, attend plays. It is the arts that translate human suffering into a form which can be both appealing to the senses and emotive, causing you to ‘see’ the life of another. If you want to see how a devastating illness like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) can affect someone’s life, read Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom). Not only will you learn about the disorder, you will see how the caregiver can be transformed by the one experiencing the illness.
Poetry has the power to punch you in your gut, get your attention and change your world view. I recently read the memoir of the poet Lemn Sissay, whose path to being the British Poet Laureate is both harrowing and inspiring. After being taken from his single mother (an Ethiopian student who found herself ‘in trouble’ while at a Christian College in England), he was fostered by a white family but then given back to ‘the System’ at the age of eleven, and placed in various Homes. At the age of seventeen he encountered the music of Bob Marley, the Jamaican whose religion (Rastafarian) was based in Ethiopia, and Lemn was inspired by Bob’s lyrics. As he struggled to find his identity he had found a man who took pride in his roots, his culture, his ancestry, and Lemn could do so too.
We cannot live without the sciences, but if we are to live we need the arts, the humanities. And through the humanities we can recognize each other, learn of each other, and from each other. For the humanities are our stories, our ways of making sense of the world we live in. It is ironic that although in nursing we talk more and more about evidence-based practice, it is the art of empathy, compassion and being present with a patient (with all of your senses engaged) that is the most healing, the most therapeutic.
On this Friday morning, I hope you have an aesthetic appreciation of the world in which you live, and the people with whom you come in contact. And if you find you cannot connect with a group of people, reach for a book, go to a museum, watch a movie. Through the arts we can rediscover our humanity, and in so doing, add some value to this world of ours.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!