We use Homer and Sun Tzu as a background to better understand and reformulate confrontation, anger and violence in medicine, contrasting an unproductive ‘love of war’ with a productive ‘art of war’ or ‘art of strategy’. At first glance, it is a paradox that the healing art is not pacific, but riddled with militaristic language and practices. On closer inspection, we find good reasons for this cultural paradox yet regret its presence. Drawing on insights from Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, we argue for better understanding of confrontation, anger, bullying, intimidation and violence in medicine in order to change the culture. For example, equating medicine with war is not a given condition of medicine but a convenient metaphor with historical origins and a historical trajectory. Other, non-martial metaphors, such as medicine as collaboration, may be more appropriate in an age of team-based care. Taking lessons from Homer, we suggest three key ways in which cold-hearted confrontation and anger in medicine can be transformed into productive, warm-hearted engagement: the transformation of angry impulse into (1) reflection, (2) moral courage and (3) empathy. Thinking with Homer can offer an aesthetically and morally charged alternative to the current body of literature on topics, such as anger in doctors, and how this may be ‘managed’, without recourse to an instrumental economy where emotions are viewed as commodities, and emotional responses can be ‘trained’ through communication skills courses.
- Militaristic metaphors
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