Episode 8, season 13, Grey’s Anatomy: The Room where it Happens.
Is a perfect lab to examine what empathy is, the core subject of this blog, and the book, so im going to attempt to surgically dissect it based on this tv series episode. Because on the surgical table empathy must happen, always. Outside of that room it happens rarely, because it’s a fairly new technology on our evolutionary time clock, accessible to only a handful of human specimens. It is still fragile, it still takes too much of our brain’s CPU, it not always automatically turns on, its resting condition is off, or neutral, but sometimes it’s ready, right on the edge, and the situation where it must be ready to turn itself on immediately is in the OR.
Take a look at the doctors operating an unknown John Doe. It’s a mixed bag of race, gender, and age of doctors, a perfect mix actually. What connects them all is the realization that they need to turn the empathy on in order to save the patient, they must care enough to put all the effort into this most difficult surgery. They know that if they don’t the patient will die. They know if they gave up, and it’s very easy to just give up, the amount of energy to mount the operation with the exact amount of empathy is enormous. We usually still give up on using it, we switch off attention, we wander away, we walk away, and often we protest. But the surgeons prepare the most vital part of the surgery by mounting an enormous amount of empathy. The most experienced doctor lays it out for his colleagues, by picturing the patient’s personal history, by going into much detail, hoping that the more detail he lays out in front of them, the more chance they pick up the hooks to switch it on for them. At the same time he makes it easier for himself by picturing a black woman that matches his own race. He does it for himself and his female black surgeon across the table. At this stage of the surgery these two doctors take charge and make all decisions, overriding white male and female surgeons. At this point Meredith objects to it but loses ground, deficient on empathy, only to pick it up later at the end when she pictures the patient’s family waiting outside the operating room. She pictures a white boy and a black girl, who match exactly the race of her own children. This is when all the surgeons completed mounting empathy, fully running on it. And once they were runnning on full empathy, it was unstoppable. An impossible, the most difficult surgery resulted in saving the patient.
Now, some points along the way. You may ask why each of the doctors, except Meredith pictured a human being of their own race. Meredith Gray was the only one who pictured both. The fact is that the majority of us still run low on empathy, and it’s easiest to empathize with one’s own kind, race, gender, nationality, sexual preference, etc. You could say empathy runs on low CPU pretty well, very easily, for most of us ( i do not include specimens permanently deficient in empathy – i.e. Cluster B disorder). It takes much more effort to extend one’s energy on empathy towards the Other. Whether we want to admit it or not, in most of us it is virtually impossible. A most recent example is the election of a white supremacist whose campaign motto really meant Make America White Again.