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When I’m at a social event, I never tell anyone I’m a doctor, because I don’t want to talk about medicine when I’m trying to relax. But we went to a party last night in our neighborhood here in Hilton Head, and all our friends of course know what I do for a living. So Mrs. Jones comes up to me and says she hurt her shoulder, and it’s not getting better, and what should she do about it? I couldn’t just glare at her and leave, because I was in her house drinking her Scotch. So I politely listened to her complaints.
But I didn’t answer. I just pointed across the room: “Why don’t you go ask Bob? He’s an orthopedic surgeon. Surely he’d know more about this than me. I’m just a humble primary care doc.” Her face lit up, she thanked me, and she hustled right over to Bob, who had been enjoying her Scotch until that moment. She started talking to him, he smiled at her, and then he looked across the room at me and gave me the stink eye. I smiled and raised my glass to him. I’m a giver.
There are a few reasons I deferred. First of all, I really try to avoid giving medical advice to people who aren’t my patients. I don’t know the case, I don’t know the background – that’s an easy way to say something stupid. Second, it’s true, Bob would know more about this than me. As it happens, her condition is one with which I have a lot of experience, and I probably could have answered her question. But Bob is obviously more qualified. And the third reason is that I try to avoid looking like a fool. What if I answer, then she asks Bob, he gives a different answer, and I look like a fool? No. I try to avoid looking like a fool. But then Tom came over, struck up a conversation with me, and proved that not everyone tries to avoid looking like a fool.
Tom is an airline pilot who has developed an interest in nutritional supplements, essential oils, acupuncture, and God knows what else. At a party last year, he said that curing MS was easy by altering your diet and taking high dose vitamins or something, and that doctors knew this, and that they refused to use this cure because they couldn’t profit from it.
So, I inferred, apparently my job is to earn money by intentionally killing people.
I blew up in his face. Great entertainment for everyone. My wife guided me out the door. Forcefully. Holy crap I was angry.
I apologized to him the next time I saw him. I don’t think he recognized what a profound insult that was to someone like me, who believes that he serves God by devoting his life to healing the sick. Or at least doing the very best I can. Tom was just chatting about his hobby. To me, this is no hobby.
So I made nice, and we moved on.
On the other hand, the only way that Tom would not recognize what a profound insult that would be to me is that he lacks empathy. He can’t see things from anyone’s perspective other than his own, so he didn’t realize that what seemed like a casual statement to him would come across as a vicious attack to me. I’m sure he was surprised when I jumped down his throat.
If you lack empathy, other people become mysterious creatures. ‘What’s wrong with these people? Can’t they see the truth?’
Anyway, so Tom sits down next to me last night. I immediately start saying to myself, over and over, “…don’tsayanythingdon’tsayanythingdon’tsayanything…” as Tom starts to talk.
He talked about COVID. Now, if someone is a big enough conspiracy theorist to honestly believe that doctors are intentionally killing MS patients for profit, you can imagine what he thinks of the COVID mess. He’s an anti-vaxxer, and he spent 30 minutes telling me the dangers of the COVID vaccines.
Now, these vaccines are new, and perhaps we’ll discover problems as we go forward. I think they’re probably a good idea, but honestly I’m not really sure yet. Just like on most other topics, the more I read the less I know for sure. And I’ve read a lot on this topic. It’s just too soon to say. I think it will be years before we really know if the vaccines were a good idea. I think they are. Probably. But we’ll see…
Which brings me back to my conversation with the lady with the bad shoulder. I was reluctant to answer her question, because I knew there was someone in the room that knew more about it than me, and if he somehow became involved in our conversation, I might look stupid. So I shut my trap and deferred to the guy who has spent his life studying the question at hand.
That was not Tom’s approach last night. He sat right down next to someone who he knows does this for a living, and gives a 30-minute dissertation on something that he knows very little about. An amateur telling an expert how to do his job. And he seemed perfectly comfortable doing so. Tom did not ask me a single question. He lectured me. About my field. He wasn’t concerned about me publicly pointing out that he was wrong. Because he knew he wasn’t wrong. He believes.
Or, perhaps, he lacks sufficient empathy to understand that there may be perspectives other than his own which may have some validity.
It would be like me telling him how to fly a plane. Ok, maybe I’ve flown a Cessna before. Maybe I read about aviation as a hobby. But he flies passenger jets for a living. Why would I try to tell him how to fly a plane? Why would that thought even cross my mind? “You know what I’m going to do at this party? I’m going to go over there and tell that pilot how to fly a plane. This should be fun!”
Why would I do that?
As I sat there trying to be nice, it occurred to me that Tom wasn’t exactly lecturing to me. He was preaching. He was preaching with the confidence of someone preaching to the choir. Because in his world, everyone is in the choir. They all believe. Which got me to thinking about smartphones and social media.
Tom may have been the only one in the room last year that actually believed that doctors intentionally kill people for profit. And he was probably surprised that I reacted to his casual comment with such hostility.
He was surprised because he hangs out on websites that confirm his biases. He’s the only one in the room who thinks that, but he can pull out his iPhone and instantly connect with a virtual room full of like-minded individuals. And that’s where he lives. So his occasional excursions out into the real world probably feel sort of odd. ‘What’s wrong with these people? Can’t they see the truth?’
Politics is getting more and more tribal and hostile because we’re no longer fellow Americans discussing tax policy or immigration laws or something. We identify more and more with smaller and smaller subgroups online to such an extent that we’re losing the ability to communicate, and more importantly to empathize, with nearly anyone else.
So every debate just turns into a shouting match. Even if it’s about something as boring as scientific research.
I’m convinced that Tom is a nice person, and he means well. He’s just so far down some rabbit hole that he can’t even see out anymore. That describes a lot of Americans, these days.
We’re losing the ability to see things from the perspective of others. We’re losing empathy.
Is it possible that smartphones are destroying our society by destroying our empathy? What if that’s true? What should we do?
I love my smartphone. I really do. But I’m starting to think they’re dangerous.Published in