Generally, maternal assurances come verbally in the form of “Everything’s going to be alright.” But instead she told me that horses sleep standing up. Upon reflection, I’m certain she meant that her healing from the last surgery would be swift, as she compared the vigilance with which some animals remain on guard with her own resolve to overcome cancer. Though the message was communicated through an obscure reference to the year of the horse, I deeply understood the perseverance she would exhibit during recovery.
The ways in which we attempt to communicate the most simple and subtle ideas are extraordinary, while it is even more remarkable when we can successfully convey what we’re thinking and have others respond. Though some may use melodies, guttural noises, or algorithmic hand gestures in addition to their words, every medium of our being is intended to communicate messages. The subtleties in body language, the crucial importance in delivery, and our choice in phrases can have a significant impact on those who listen.
The ability to listen with one’s eyes, nose, and fingertips is an indispensable skill in the practice of medicine because it allows us to quickly draw close to the message being communicated. I generally look forward to my walk home from work because of the fragrant bakery on 57th Street. Claude stands outside the bakery even on bitterly cold evenings. Through his measured flattery, I understand that he is a humble man with simple needs of spare change (or something delicious, preferably warm), though I have never heard him ask for even a penny. “Good evening, beautiful” is generally the greeting any young lady may receive, with a grand smile and a small bow. In the playroom of Comer Children’s Hospital, young people with various malignancies express their preference of wiggly eyes over fluorescent feathers for their tabletop projects, usually pointing with sticky fingers—gestures fraught with intention and desire—not eloquent words. It is through these seemingly mundane fragments of communication that I have become infatuated with listening and become delighted upon understanding (even if the message itself is sometimes sobering).
However, not all messages are communicated clearly. Too often there is a disconnect in what needs to be said due to malfunctions during delivery. We bring our languages and cultural identities to the fore in attempts to articulate, yet oftentimes they can blur the main point of the message. It is of great consequence in medicine to consider all words, postures, and data, with an underlying responsibility on behalf of the listener to gather the...