Art is defined by one video as the purposeful expression of human creative skill or imagination that makes the audience feel something. German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proposed three questions for one to characterize a creative work as art: 1) did it have a goal, 2) did it achieve that goal, and 3) was it worth pursuing? We’ve all been told by at least one lecturer in the halls of Chung Te that the practice of medicine is both an art and a science. Back in my second year of medical school, I caught myself rolling my eyes to the side and thinking at the back of my mind, “Ang mema.” I now realize that to think this way is to concede that the past three years of my life are complete futility. Is the practice of medicine therefore worth pursuing? If so, as a doctor-in-training, what is my goal in undergoing this long, lifetime endeavor?
During my undergraduate studies, I developed an interest in philosophy, particularly in existentialism. This school of thought is largely about how the human person thinks and perceives the world around them. Martin Heidegger was one well-known existentialist philosopher, and I was exposed to his ideas back in Philosophy 101. His work Being and Time (in German, Sein und Zeit) explored the ideas of what it meant to be. He discusses being in two senses of the word: a being, or an entity that exists, and be-ing, the act or the verb of existence.
Humans see the world around us in how we relate to the world, more than just by characteristics of objects around us. I can describe a stethoscope to be an object with three long hollow tubes protruding from a rubber center, with two of these tubes composed of metal and one tube made of flexible rubber. For a medical student, it is much easier to appreciate what I just described than it would be for an accountant or a law student. A medical student, because of their background and involvement in the medical field, can better understand what a stethoscope is and its purpose as a medical tool.
But other students have stethoscopes that are different from mine. My stethoscope is of a dark green hue tubing, with a bell-diaphragm unit that can spin on an axle to switch modes, and is of the Littman brand. On the other hand, there are other students who have stethoscopes with golden binaurals, bright neon-pink tubing, made by other manufacturers. And as such, because of all our differences, we would each have described the stethoscope differently.
And we differ in many more ways than by just what kind of stethoscope we own. We all vary in background, undergraduate course, high school, upbringing, nationality, gender, age, height, and even in the time we were born. We are all different in what Heidegger calls thrownness, as we all were thrown into the world. Each of us is created differently, with a different experience to bring to the plate, and a different set of experiences that made us who we are. This individuality, Heidegger says, is inauthentic when we base it too heavily on the routine of everyday life, when it is grounded upon a standard to please others or to live life according to the demands that others pile upon us. We are all beings bound by time, and ultimately we are all destined for nothingness. Eventually, all of us are going to leave this planet. Heidegger says that that it is therefore futile to try to live life in an attempt to please others, and that we should start living life determined by ourselves in order to live authentically.
Paul Ricoeur, a student of Heidegger’s, critiques this and offers another layer of thought in the work Oneself as Another. He says it is meaningless to live life on the sole basis of being bound by time. Life has meaning not because of the brevity of our time on earth, but despite it. If my pursuit to become a doctor is only because I am living for myself, then each day I struggle, complete with the entire coffee-study-repeat cycle, is meaningless. On the contrary, he says, our identity is the union of who we are and how we act in the context of the people around us.
The people around us are not just holograms that tickle our senses, but also selves by themselves. Each person we encounter is an Other—like me, a human with a background, a heritage and a history. A self, like me, with their own pains and passions. When we glance upon the face of the other, we don’t just see the outward manifestation of another human creature; we see a masterpiece bearing the signature of a master Artist. We see a being asking—no—demanding our pity, our mercy, crying out for our attention in words similar to the lyrics of the song This is Me. “I am brave. I am bruised. I am who I’m meant to be. This is me.” It is up to us, whether we choose to help them or to hurt them, the least of our brethren. But what we choose to do to them, we do to God himself.
It is here, he says, that we arrive at this realization: “I too am an Other.” We too are weak and vulnerable, with problems and struggles, in need of the same pity and mercy. Not one man is greater than his neighbor, but all men are created equally. All people are made in the same likeness, bearing the semblance of the same infinite Creator. This is a burden and a responsibility that is far greater than we ourselves are worthy of handling. The implication, when we acknowledge that our lives are not our own, is that we cannot live life by ourselves. And we then conclude, we should not live our lives for ourselves. We live for Him, and we live for others. It is then that we can live authentically, serving a cause greater than our own mere human existence.
Ricoeur then takes this into a more practical sense, introducing his well-known threefold mimesis, a three-step model of prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration. Mimesis is a word that means, “imitation”. As an artist will first examine a live model or recollect a distant memory even before the first drop of paint bleeds on to his plain, white canvas, our actions are prefigured. Prefigured by memories of people who impacted us, events that affected us, and the customs and cultures that shape the way we live. Even abstract art, though it may not represent any distinct object, is influenced by a thought, a feeling, or idea in the artist’s mind. These memories are far more than just “background noise” that we simply pass by in the hurriedness of regular routine. This is where “the face of the Other” comes in, as even if we may try so hard to ignore the Other-s around us, the Other-s are truly the ones who inspire us to think the way we do.
After this first step comes configuration, which Ricoeur likens to the thoughts of a person reading a narrative text. As the eyes of the reader graze through the grassy fields of letters and words, they are in the process of constructing a world of the text in their mind. Likewise, our own experiences cause us to form connections, associations, and neural networks, configuring our priorities, passions, and paradigms. These shape the way we think and how we view the world.
As we build our worldview, we the arrive at the final step of refiguration, or refiguring the world around us. When we act, speak, and live our lives, we share our worldview and perspective with those who live around us. Though our ideas are never completely our own, when we act based on these experiences, we then contribute to the ever-continuous process of rebuilding this world that we live in. We, acting by principle by how we understand the world around us, then come full circle and impact the lives of others, causing them to repeat the cycle again.
The concept of threefold mimesis has been applied in several fields and disciplines. It has found its way into the realms of popular culture, theology, art, and even neuroscience. (See Author’s Note.) Ricoeur invites us to engage with those around us through discourse, challenging us to see ourselves not as lone wolves but as characters in an overarching narrative. He wants us to understand that our individual actions is not futile dust in the wind. But after we reflect (configuration) upon the summation of our memories and experiences (prefiguration) it is inevitable that our response will impact our world in the long run (refiguration). Everything that we do exposes truths, changes perspectives, and shakes the foundations of society as we know it. It is just as every single hair on the brush of a skilled painter leaves a tiny but lasting smear of paint on the canvas of time.
What we do as medical students, and future doctors, will impact on the lives of those around us. It was last Sunday at church when a young woman approached me, greeting me as “Doc.” I was delighted to see the face of someone whom I had helped in a previous patient encounter. Though I was still a medical student, what I did back then when I took her history, gave her physical examination, and prescribed her management (under the guidance of the supervising physician) had a lasting impact on her. I was reminded once again of my “Why.” If I was able to touch her life while just a medical student, then how many more patients could I impact as a doctor in the future?
“To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.” This popular aphorism constitutes the three success indicators I will bear when I begin my practice as a doctor. And my goal, in the vein of the Great Healer himself, is to do the will of Him who sends me to heal. I believe these are goals worth pursuing. Only by Christ’s help, will I ever achieve these goals. More than an art, I believe that medicine is a mission.
That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion:
Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do,
including every secret thing, whether good or bad.
– Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, NLT
Changeux, J.-P., & Ricoeur, P. (2002). What Makes Us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. (M. DeBevoise, Trans.) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time: A translation of Sein und Zeit. (J. Stambaugh, Trans.) State University of New York.
Messmer, J. (Director). (2017). What makes something art? [Motion Picture]. Canada: YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vV2cc_fFgmA
Ricoeur, P. (1984). Time and Narrative. (K. B. McLaughlin, & D. Pellauer, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as Another. (K. Blamey, Trans.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Turnau, T. (2015). Ricoeur’s Theory of Narrative as a Theory of Popular Cultural Religion. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from Faith-Popular Culture-Imagination: http://www.turnau.cz/node/31