Pictures of you…and me


I HAVE been pondering on the pictures we hold of other people and of ourselves, and how they influence the way we see each other, the way we are with each other and the way we live our lives.

For example, we think that being a doctor is “good”. But being a white, male, upper-middle class specialist with a wife and beautiful well behaved and high-achieving children is like the royal flush in a poker game – you win, you are unbeatable.

If we think that life is a competition (and most of us do), then we have to learn to play the cards we are dealt in life to our best advantage.

Doctor is a great card, which is why so many people want to have it.

My parents were both doctors. My mother is a white Australian and my father was Indian. In the 1950s in Australia, this was a confronting combination for most people – especially their parents. My mother’s mother was horrified and refused to come to their wedding, relenting at the last moment, and turning up in a terrible hat (perhaps her personal form of objection).

For her, the doctor card did not trump the coloured card. But when we children came along, all was forgiven, for the grandchildren card trumped them all.

We think that white Australians can be racist (and they can), but all races can be racist if people identify strongly enough with being a member of their race. My father’s parents were horrified too that he wanted to marry for love and out of his culture, rather than agreeing to the traditional arranged Indian marriage. Again though, the doctor card was played and won and again, grandchildren came up trumps.

We all hold these pictures of “good” and “bad” cards that we are dealt, and they profoundly influence the way we see and relate to ourselves and to all other people.

We judge people on the basis of these pictures, and they are like a veil that we see others through, which is only dispersed as we get to know them as people.

We are given jobs on the basis of these pictures – two people may be equally competent and committed to the job, but you are more likely to get it if you “fit the bill”, which really means you fit the picture of what the employer would like you to look like.

As doctors, we see our patients through these veils too, judging them as they sit in our waiting rooms and walk through our consulting room doors, making assumptions about them based on the way they look.

But do we stop and feel who that person truly is? Do we stop and feel why they are the way they are? What life experiences have they had that have led them to look and behave like this?

Are we willing to look deeper than the colour of their skin, hair, eyes, clothes, their size and shape, to the “them” that is the same in all of us, on the inside?

We, of all people, should know that we are all the same on the inside, for we are intimately acquainted with the human body which, under the skin, looks the same in everyone.

And we also know that we are more than just a physical body … if we were not, why would we make so many choices in defiance of this body, as so many of us do, that end up with us sick and needing to see the doctor?

And looking even deeper, we know that we are even more than this defiant spirit who usually runs the show, for at the heart of us all beats the pulse of life, our soul.

If we stop to feel people first, we are more able to see the truth of who they are, for beauty is not only skin deep – our true beauty comes from within.


This article was originally published as “Looking at patients beyond first impressions” in MJA Insight, Issue 12, 03 April 2017

This is the second part of a series. Here is part one

What does a doctor look like?

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