Some patients need absolution, not medicine

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Some reflections by a doctor on the limits of what he can do for his patients who feel guilt or remorse when they have done wrong. Quote:

What’s the medical specialty that helps people who’ve done wrong? What’s the service industry that undoes guilt? I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, the only methodical approaches to this are in organized religions. My colleagues and friends who are psychologists and psychiatrists may object. But it seems to me that mental health professionals can only clarify the patient’s goals and feelings, clarify if the ethical damage can be undone, and work through the feelings. That’s a lot, but it doesn’t strike me as what these patients are craving. They want to atone. Organized religions have a formula for that.

I’m not here to tell you to go to church. And I’m certainly not going to delve into theology or suggest that any religion’s recipe for forgiveness is true in a fundamental or exclusive sense. I’m just suggesting that if you know you’ve done something wrong, and you feel terribly about it, maybe you don’t need a doctor. Maybe you need a minister, a priest, or a rabbi.

Like I said, I love what I do. I can fix some medical problems, and I can help prevent others. I can help you live more days and make those days healthier. But there is more to life than that. Sometimes there is also wrongdoing, and guilt, and redemption. For that, I have no training. Forgive me.

Some patients need absolution, not medicine.

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4 thoughts on “Some patients need absolution, not medicine

  1. Interesting article. Just wanted to point out that most recovery programs have such methods as well by which people can start over with a clean slate. Those who follow the Twelve Steps will be familiar with the steps that require a listing (moral inventory) of the harm one has done, a confession of that harm and defects of character to someone and then a period where one makes amends wherever possible. There is also the emphasis in such programs on spirituality, not religion. This makes is possible for people of any religion (and those with none) to feel at home and find peace in such programs. For a very good take on how this works I highly recommend the book, The Spirituality of Imperfection by E. Kurtz.

    • Thanks Victoria. Good addition to the discussion. I think there is a lot of commonality among religions and non-religious approaches as well. Religions may have more elaborate or formal rituals, but Twelve Step and other programs are another form of ritualization that helps. While not religious myself, I am more in the school of ‘whatever works’, as different approaches work for different people. Thanks for the book suggestion.

      • I agree with you 100%. It really is about finding what works. I started my journey as a fairly conservative Roman Catholic. Over the years opening myself up to other possibilities has made all the difference. When I was getting my biopsies done I tried a Buddhist meditation technique that worked wonderfully well – the radiologist said after the procedure that I was one of the most “zen” patients he’d ever had. 🙂

        Another concept that I learned to embrace and I think it’s a good one is loving kindness (maitri) toward oneself and others. It works. I guess my general take on it (and this is only my experience) is that it is not and never will be about replacing one belief system with another but finding multiple paths toward serenity. It starts with humility and the ability to “se remettre en question.” Took me 46 YEARS + admitting I was an alcoholic + being diagnosed with cancer to acquire that all important Beginner’s Mind. Go figure. 🙂

      • I think we all take some time to find what works. Perhaps it is easier for people with a defined religious framework, but personally I find the journey and exploration richer. Humility is always a good place to start – and most religions, at their deepest, start there.

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