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The Arts and Medicine
November 1, 2016

Poetry’s Company: Where Medicine Leaves Us Alone

Author Affiliations
  • 1Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; and private practice, Seattle, Washington
JAMA. 2016;316(17):1744-1745. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.13618

Before training in medicine, I studied poetry. I went on to work in psychiatry. What I’ve really been studying, without always knowing it, is human nature, out of my own need to more surely belong—to know better what company I’m in, and how or if I fit into the human scheme of things. What is my small part meant to be? What thread in the fabric am I, and what is the weave?

I’ve come to believe this need to belong is itself what most characterizes human nature. The varieties of human suffering are all challenges to the sense of belonging. We speak of such challenges in terms of loss. A banishment or a loved one’s death is an essential blow to belonging. The loss of any part of the body or its use threatens belonging as it limits how we might play our part. And the loss of embodiment itself we call death.