Is there a Great Divide? Strange, perhaps, that the question has continued to haunt me all these years; but you see, if there is, it matters. As I’ve written about before, we each see the world through our own eyes and bring to that perception our own acculturated expectations, our own history, and yes, our own prejudices.
Philosophers have argued about this for centuries: do our sensations carry accurate information about the world, or are they so riven by internal conflicts and so rerouted along personally-determined neural pathways that they are uniquely what we make them? Representative only in that we have defined them as being such.
I do not want to mix up this thought with Plato’s; I’m not talking about his contention that we can only perceive ‘chairs’ -physical objects- but fail to identify the actual reality: ideal forms –chairness, if you will. I am not meaning to confuse the particular with the general.
Nor am I referring to the philosophical conundrum of Names. If I see a colour as red and yet you see that very same colour as blue in your brain, it may be interesting, but not particularly important: we’ve both learned to call it by the same name -a point not lost on Shakespeare, albeit in a changed analogy: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’… There’s no problem with this, largely because we assume the other person is seeing the same thing -she says she is, after all; why would I have reason to doubt it?
The world is sui generis in its apprehension, but does it necessarily follow that this can be attributed to things like differences in age, culture -even gender? Or is it merely that we inhabit different brains? And if so, is this gap bridgeable, or do we forever have to watch each other from opposite sides of the river?
I worry that even if we use a common vocabulary, and agree on definition and assignation, we’re not really out of the woods. Pain, for example: the pain of childbirth. It carries with it a melange of colours: the frustration of its temporal duration, the joy of anticipation, the determination that comes with motivation, but also the agony of contractions straining to overcome the body’s resistance to tissue stretch and damage, the hard-earned, unforgettable lesson and life-long experience that pain is a warning -a warning to stop what you’re doing and escape… Can I as an outsider, as a doctor, as a non-participant, ever truly understand the experience, let alone the meaning of what I see? And if not, where do I fit in? And when? To act without understanding is to risk acting inappropriately, insensitively: the Inadvertent Charity…
So, is there a Divide, and does it matter? If I respond to your pain -if I relieve it even though I can only guess at the depth of its effect on you, does it matter that I could never experience it? Because, as a male, I will never know what it’s like to have, say, irregular, heavy, or painful periods, does it really diminish the adequacy of my response, or change my ability to attend to your world? Does my inability to pass through the door, somehow detract from the action? Demean it?
Yes, I suppose I’ve passed middle age -left it behind the hill, perhaps- and no, I haven’t actually grown up with the same cultures, or traditions as those I see in my office; I am undoubtedly a product of my era, my generation. But how much does that separate me from those I see? Along with accreted knowledge, there is something that comes with age, comes with living in a room long enough to recognize and treasure the things in it. It’s something that used to be valued. Honored. Something that transcends gender, rises above mere culture and tradition. It is experience; it is acquaintance and comfort with difference; it is, I suppose, wisdom.
I will never be a woman; I will never be the same as anybody I see; I will only ever be a person reaching out…
A rather small Divide when you think about it.