November 09, 2004

When Being Right is Wrong

There was a mix-up last week and I ended up in the library to do some volunteer work, but they didn't really need me. So after a furtively returned the books I've had out way to long (one advantage of having a non-computerized system) I went searching for good reads.

Partial success; the fiction book was about as exciting as unbuttered, stale toast.
The non-fiction book---I couldn't put it down. I read every chance I could between cooking and cleaning chores, as I prepared for Shabbat (the Sabbath).

The book called "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" Anne Fadiman, and centered on a young Hmong child who suffered from a severe case of epilipsey and how the treatment plan the doctors devised conflicted with both the abilities of the family to comply, owing to the language difficulties and the cultural mindsset of the parents, who saw the disease not as a set of symptoms with a bio-physical origin, but as caused by evil spirits who stole the child's soul away.

Every other chapter details the culture and history of the Hmong, and the two types of chaptes compliment each other in understanding the parents decisions and in understanding the cultural growth of the people themselves. It was an very effective treatment of the family and their actions, and the Hmong people.

The author of the book neither idealizes nor denigrates any of the main players, though she does have a bias she still managed to give a honest apprasial of both the people of Hmong and this particular case.

Neither the doctors, who only wanted the best for the child, nor the parents, who were loving to the extreme and wanted nothing best for the child, could understand each other's cultural stance, and thus they could not act in concert with each other to effectively treat the child; as a result the child suffered severe brain damage, and is but of a shell of a human being; reduced to a persistent near vegetative state; she eats and excretes, sleeps and cries, and lives staring blankly at the walls.

The center question of the book was; "Could this have been prevented and what steps would have been necessary to take." and the conclusion was the idealized best treatment was, perhaps in this case, actually second best; a less aggressive treatment, one which respected the cultural understanding of the disease on the part of the Hmong, could have saved the child's health.

What is true on a grand scale is also true on a personal scale. How often is the problem not in what we say as to what we say to whom? I remember reading long ago in the book "Helter Skelter" that one of the reasons Manson may have targeted Sharon Tate was because while her directive to use the back door or go by the alley way(I forget the exact comment) had a neutral value to her, it had negative connotations to him. Obviously that does not excuse his behavior and the behavior of his followers, but it may help understand "why her?"

How often do such misunderstandings affect us in various ways. How often have we left a conversation feeling confused or misunderstood, hurt or angered because of something that was said, when in fact the intentions of the other party was different from what we concluded? Or from the opposite end, left the conversation certain we were not understood and feeling frustrated because we haven't the slightest idea "how else we could have put it." ?

How do we assure ourselves we have correctly understood and that we have comprehended what the other is saying?

Posted by Rachel Ann at November 9, 2004 07:26 AM

I'll have to go check out this book, it sounds fascinating. And I am a library frequent-flier, to be sure (unfortunately ours IS computerized so we have to pay those ugly 50-cent fines!)

This reminds me of that old excersize that tests the communication relationship between two people - one person draws a picture of a dog and then describes it to the other person - who draws it. Then you compare the pictures of the two dogs.

It's amazing how even people who have been close for decades, from the same school or town, will draw dogs that don't even look like they belong in the same species.

Posted by: Elizabeth at November 9, 2004 04:11 PM

I read this book also and it is wonderful. It gives you a real insight into another culture.
It's true that we all "filter" everything we hear through our belief system and ideas. We need to all strive to hear what the other person is saying rather than react with what we believe to be true.
One exercise to learn how to do this is to spend a few minutes every day believing the opposite of what you believe. Start with simple things like foods or colors and work your way up to big ideas!

Posted by: diane at November 10, 2004 09:52 PM
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