The prompt has asked me to reflect on a quote, which reads, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” On an initial reading, the quote is perplexing, since it begins by talking about “humanity”, but then goes on to complicate that very notion, by speaking of something necessary for that human essence to become actualized. Upon reflection, this quote seems to invoke the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be human?”
I’d like to talk about each half of the statement separately, and then consider them together. First, “my humanity is bound up in yours”: I remember taking an undergraduate elective course called, “Language, Symbols, Self,” which explored the ways in which our perceptions of reality, the world, ourselves and each other are shaped by the language we use. That is, it looked at how language and communication influence who we are and how we engage the world around us. A key idea was the notion of “intersubjectivity” – the idea that both “subjectivity” and “objectivity” are insufficient concepts: over-emphasis on subjectivity suggests that we exist as isolated entities and that our ideas are wholly our own, and over-emphasis on objectivity suggests that we can wholly disconnect from our shared world and the contexts and experiences that shape our beliefs, ideals, and worldviews. Rather, because we are intensely social creatures, we learn about the world largely through others (parents, family, school, social groups, politics, etc.), and this learning takes place through various kinds of communication (verbal language, body language, popular symbols or social norms, expressions of approval or disapproval, etc.). As such, we all shape and are shaped by one another in meaningful ways – no one’s ideas form in a vacuum, disconnected from all others, and no one can wholly detach from their experiences to form a truly objective, detached perspective. We rely on each other to make meaning, so in that way, our “humanity” (how we see ourselves, how we see each other, and how we see these as related to one another) is “bound up” in the humanity of others.
Next, “for we can only be human together”. If our humanity is constructed in that exchange between ourselves and others, then to “be human” is to be socially connected to others. If we isolate ourselves and cut ourselves off from others, not only are we depriving ourselves of that shared, social experience, we are abandoning the human project altogether. “Humanity” becomes manifest in those very exchanges between oneself and others; without that intersubjectivity, we are starving a crucial part of our inner self. On the other hand, when we recognize this shared, mutual experience as a process or journey of becoming that we follow together with others, we enhance our own sense of humanity and that of others. We are – or become – “human together”.
That course, and this quote, remind me of the duty we have to one another. If we are, at least in part, responsible for the way others see the world, that is a heavy responsibility to bear, and one that should be approached with seriousness and consideration. As a physician, I will not only be responsible for helping my patients achieve the best possible health outcomes, I will also be a representative of the medical establishment. I will contribute to patients’ well-being (or, negatively, to their suffering, if I do not uphold best practices), and I will shape their understanding of their bodies, of the notion of “health” in general, and of the patient-physician relationship. Doctors are healers and educators, but they are also much more than that, in the wider public imagination. They represent a host of ethical ideals and are often viewed as authorities – one only needs to look at organizations like Doctors without Borders or the World Health Organization, or the statements of individual doctors on social media (for example, discussing the refugee crisis, treatment of asylum seekers, etc.) to see the ways in which physicians and other medical experts can contribute to and shape wider social and political conversations. We must be socially aware and socially conscious individuals, and take that responsibility seriously, as we think through our relationships with our patients and with the wider public discourse. Because of our role in patients’ lives, we can offer a unique perspective in the process of becoming “human together”.