Professor of clinical medicine encourages narrative dialogues to solve conflict

Sunny Kim

Rita Charon, professor of clinical medicine and director of the program in narrative medicine at Columbia University, challenged audience members Monday at a public forum to openly discuss difficult questions on race, violence and justice in order to build a more empathetic society.

The forum was filled with undergraduate students, graduate students and visiting scholars who hoped to engage in a personal conversation focused on the topic, “What is a Caring Society?”

Communication studies freshman Lisa Marie Resendez heard about the forum through her UGS course, “Difficult Dialogues: Participatory Democracy.” She said she learned that it is crucial to have diverse perspectives to form an opinion of an empathetic society.

“We need to have diversity and know that we have to use our resources to help each other,” Resendez said. “It’s important to have diverse perspectives because you can’t just go off of one person … it has to be a collective decision as different people need to be represented in different ways.” 

Simone Talma Flowers, executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, and sociology professor Sheldon Ekland-Olson were also present to provide perspectives on an empathetic society.

Social work professor Barbara Jones moderated the panel. She said it’s important to be an empathetic society to move forward.

“Caring is more than a descriptor, it’s an action,” Jones said. “So if we can find opportunities to offer caring to other people actively, it takes intention. Whether that is volunteering, being kind, counting to 10 when you’re frustrated, trying to understand someone’s story … all of those things will help us, because care is an action, and it’s an intentional choice.”

During her speech, Charon discussed how some health professionals protect themselves from empathizing with their patients, which can be problematic.

“We fail to train our students and colleagues to adequately comprehend and care about that which our patients undergo,” Charon said. “Once we understand that we are not divided from our patients, then we can derive comfort from the care. The care becomes a chance at unity. It’s a chance at trust.” 

Charon said it’s crucial to actively participate in difficult conversations such as race, violence and justice to minimize polarization.

“Whether you’re on the side of gun control or gun ownership, somehow you treasure being alive,” Charon said. “I don’t think either the gun owners or gun control people want people dead, although one side believes that the other side believes it. So you have to get underneath these preconceptions, and that takes doing and it takes trust.”