Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

published by Hank Dunn - August 19th, 2021
“Prince-of-Tides” Empathy

My wife, Sally, and I decided to watch the 1991 movie, The Prince of Tides, for a date night at home. I had forgotten how sad, tragic, yet hopeful the film was. The next day, having lunch with a friend, we mentioned we watched it. Our friend said, “That is my favorite movie.”

It had been thirty years since we had seen it, and it was a little circuitous how The Prince of Tides came up on our radar. In researching the late Doug Marlette, creator of my favorite comic strip, Kudzu (I have a video where I talk about Marlette), I found out that Marlette was best friends with Pat Conroy, who wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay for The Prince of Tides.

You never know

The film’s main character, Tom, played by Nick Nolte, travels from his home on the coast of South Carolina to New York City to help his twin sister, who had just survived her third suicide attempt. Over the course of the film, we find out about how their family got so dysfunctional.

The twins, along with their brother and mother, had experienced a violently traumatic event. Their mother told the children never to talk to anyone about what happened to them. Through therapy, Tom and his sister revisited their long-suppressed past.

Curious, I asked our friend why this was her favorite movie. “Because you never know what is behind someone’s story. Why they act the way they do.” Indeed, once you know Tom’s family’s whole story, you’re more compassionate about the suicide attempts and other character flaws in the family.

We are talking about empathy here.

Assume Positive Intent

My new mantra in this age of text messages and emails: “Assume Positive Intent.” I picked this up while listening to Sam Harris’s podcast focused on communicating with colleagues at work.

If you are in the physical presence of someone, you not only hear their words, but you pick up on body language. That slight smile, the rolling of the eyes — none of which are present in a text message. A tech CEO Harris interviews reminds everyone in his company to “API,” or “Assume Positive Intent,” when reading an email or text message.

My wife occasionally says that my texts seem “curt.” At least, that’s how it feels to her. I protest, “No, that’s not what I meant at all.” API.

They’re doing the best they can

Long ago, I adopted another mantra that has served me well over the years. When I feel hurt by the actions or words of someone, I remind myself that they’re doing the best they can.

This brings us back to that Prince-of-Tides empathy. I don’t know why someone was mean or thoughtless, but something in their past (or present) brought us to this moment.

We’re all doing the best we can.

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