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Ancient answers to modern maladies: the art of actively seeking out the patient’s voice
  1. Deborah Kirklin
  1. Dr D Kirklin, Department of Primary Care & Population Sciences, Royal Free & University College Medical School, Archway Campus, 2nd Floor Holborn Union Building, 2-10 Highgate Hill, London N19 5LW, UK; d.kirklin{at}

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Sometimes, perhaps more often than most of us like to admit, it can feel like we’re just pawns in some giant chess game. Too small and insignificant to influence the players, we worry instead about how the game will end, cherishing those moments when, just occasionally, for a moment or two, we seem to be in control of what’s happening around us.

For the ancient Greeks the players of this all too often cruel game were the gods, a group of individuals whose petulance, power and pride demanded attention and respect. And no matter how hard some might try to thwart the gods, few doubted that fate would out in the end with the only choice available to mere mortals being about how one lived, not how, when or why one died.

Watching the events of the last nine months unfold, as natural and manmade disasters have wreaked havoc around the world, as individuals and their leaders have sought to give a voice to the feelings of powerlessness that these events have engendered, and as fears of social unrest have raised haunting spectres from the past, the echoes of Greek tragedy haven’t seemed that far away. And as more and more people around the world are forced to learn to adapt to these changed circumstances the human need to understand what it all means can be overwhelming.

The search for meaning and the drive to create meaning where none appears to exist is perhaps central to what it means to be human. And it is in our one to one encounters with each other, with the world around us, and with our own sense of self that this search for meaning begins. For patients, families and doctors the challenges and uncertainties that accompany serious illness can provide an unwelcome impetus …

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  • Competing interests: None.