Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Lisa Lebduska’s nonfiction piece, Family Echo

John: I love how your piece contrasts the sterility of the mechanistic western approach to medicine with the humanity of the people who work within it. Is this one of the things you chose to illustrate in this piece before you wrote it, or did it just emerge organically?

Lisa: I’d say it was more organic, emerging from a place of anger and frustration as I reflected on my family’s experiences with industrialized, managed medicine. I thought about the inhumanity of those working within it, of individuals who hid behind the mechanisms so that they could survive the conditions or because they just didn’t care. But as I wrote, my memories of human kindnesses bubbled up, and I realized how many healthcare workers are fighting battles of their own and doing the best they can. I admire those who maintain their own humanity and with it the humanness of their patients.

We use the heart as a metaphor for a number of positive human qualities. Why do you think this is?

Maybe it’s because we’re always aware of it living inside of us, with us. The stomach comes and goes, announcing its emptiness or its discomfort with some garlicky demon we’ve inflicted on it. But the heart can be reached more readily, we can press our fingers to feel our pulse, so even when we feel it speeding up or slowing down, we’re aware of its steadfast presence.

In the Thai language, the same word denotes heart, mind, soul, and spirit. Why do you think we in the west separate the two, and is this a big part of the problem?

I don’t know Thai, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities of this compression. I suppose in the west we like our compartments because they make things and people easily treatable and knowable. Isolated as a fleshy organ, the heart can be discussed and measured in terms of chambers, pumping ability, pulse rate, blood pressure, and so forth. We can extract it and put it into another body. We can make a mechanical version of it. Ideally all this is so we can save lives and improve the quality of life, but once we have cleaved it from the mind or the spirit, we can also place it into the market, more prone to be treated with medication, surgery or transplantation. The role of the mind or the spirt in conversation with the heart makes everything so much more complicated and more difficult to treat within the systems that we know.

Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.” Technology has inarguably reduced human suffering—I’m really happy that I don’t know anybody who has contracted smallpox, for example—but has our increasing dependence on it robbed us of something as well?

I’m with you on celebrating and acknowledging the good that technology has achieved. I also think that it magnifies our values. In the U.S. we have wildly unequal access to healthcare and healthcare outcomes that divide along lines of racial and socio-economic status. I think, then, that the technology reduced human suffering in unequal measures while also shielding us from that fact. If we think about healthcare only as product of the mind/science and not also as a social practice—perhaps one of the heart or one of ethics—we fail to see who is being left out. And that is maybe the ultimate theft.