Jillian Horton is a physician and the author of We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing.
I’m a doctor with a lifelong interest in compassion in clinical care. I also practise and teach mindfulness. That’s why I’m surprised to find myself saying something I would have considered shocking a year ago: I don’t want to hear any more about kindness.
Let me assure you – my fatigue isn’t with kindness itself. I believe unequivocally that kindness matters. One of the reasons I engage in mindfulness practice is that research has shown it can lead us to become kinder. What I’m sick of is kindness gaslighting: talk about kindness followed by public policy that leads to unnecessary sickness and death or inadvertently silences conversations about the range of emotions that are normal in a pandemic.
My experience with kindness lip service goes back to my childhood with a profoundly disabled sibling. For most of her too-short life, my sister was marginalized by society. I witnessed a parade of ineffectual doctors, social workers and consultants in and out of our lives. I also witnessed a pattern: The ones who talked the most about kindness were rarely the kindest.
Does that surprise you? Think about the kindest people you know. There’s a good chance they espouse another quality that tends to co-exist with kindness: humility. Humility means they aren’t spending time lecturing other people on how to behave. They’re out in the field, doing the actual work.
As a health care worker, I’m also seeing another phenomenon: an oversimplification of what kindness means in practice. An Alberta physician recently wrote a wonderful piece stating that no matter your views about vaccines, health care workers will be there to care for you with “Ted Lasso-like” kindness. I applaud this earnestness. And yet, I find myself thinking about the fact that physicians work in environments that often stigmatize the expression of negative emotions. The idea that we don’t even have those feelings is part of a problem known as medical exceptionalism – one of many root causes of toxic stress in health care.
I had some pretty toxic feelings on Sept. 1. Hundreds of anti-vaxxers were gathered in all their lack of glory on the street outside the hospital where I work, repeating this stunt on Sept. 13 at hospitals across Canada. My co-workers and I were incredulous. Their presence outside our facilities was too callous to be real.
How arrogant, how tone deaf would it have been of me if I’d urged my exhausted colleagues to meet them with “kindness?” And who believes that people intent on screaming outside a children’s hospital would receive directions from Jesus himself if he happened to be in the neighbourhood?
I didn’t feel much like Ted Lasso. But I did allow myself to feel disgust and resentment – both natural reactions to their actions; to be angry at their selfishness and cruelty. In a while, it passed. I moved on to thinking about something else.
If, one day, I were to find myself looking after these people, could I provide care without hostility? Absolutely. That’s called professionalism, and it’s a fundamental requirement of being a health care worker – although it’s worth noting that Indigenous patients, people with highly stigmatized illnesses such as addiction and other groups often experience care that falls below that basic standard.
But, in this case, must I pledge a “Ted Lasso-like kindness”? To me, that question is performative. The heart of kindness is profoundly personal. Only we know why we do what we do. I’ve cared for everyone from business tycoons to curmudgeons, sometimes with tears spilling down my cheeks. Other times, I didn’t feel much but I still did a good job. My inner life runs the same gamut of emotions as anybody else’s. This is the case for any adult with a healthy frontal lobe. Bottle up those emotions and you’re sure to develop a problem you’ll eventually be talking about with a psychiatrist. Feel, name and release it, and in time, it passes. It’s just a feature of our humanity.
So I’m going to say something I never thought I’d hear myself say: Please stop talking about “kindness.” If you’re a politician, medical expert or government official enacting or defending plans that have resulted in thousands of people getting unnecessarily sick and dying, you have no right to talk about it. If you’re a health care worker, set realistic standards for yourself and just do your best. And if you’re one of the people pushing this system to the brink through your actions and choices, instead of lecturing the rest of us about kindness, you should save your breath. I’m sorry to say I think you’re going to need it.
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