'If we care enough, we can teach people how to be compassionate'
So I’m chatting to this nice young man, all youthful energy and floppy hair - him not me - and he’s telling me about his life because I am the only person left in the swimming pool changing rooms and putting his pants on in silence might have been a bit too challenging.
I’m nodding as he tells me about his stepmother, favourite shirt, preferred cheese and PIN number, when he tells me he works in learning disabilities. I nod more encouragingly and he takes the social cue to move from cheese to learning disabilities seamlessly.
“Do you know the hardest thing about working in learning disabilities?”
“Yes,” I say, aware of the fact that he didn’t know until that point that (a) I could speak and (b) I was English.
“I’ll tell you,” he says. “Manual handling.”
“Patience?” I offer quietly.
“Well yeah, you’ve got to be patient. But manual handling is the big thing.”
“Isn’t it easier to get a hoist than to help someone learn not to become impatient?” I offer, momentarily aware that I sound pompous like Yoda and also that I am only wearing a T-shirt and one sock.
And he says sagely, “Yeah but you can’t teach patience; you’ve either got it or you haven’t.”
And I distract myself by looking for my other sock because I want to say, “Why can’t you teach patience? How come you can teach someone to use a hoist, to pilot a space shuttle, make soufflé, tango, understand Kant, draw a face, do algebra, counsel, lie, juggle or perform mime but you can’t teach patience?”
Instead I settle for: “Can’t you?” And he says: “No, it comes from within.” And I think: “Surely that’s wind?”
Of course he is part of the body that is of the consensus - the widely assumed, rarely discussed assertion - that human qualities like patience or compassion, kindness or sensitivity happen to exist in some people and not others, and cannot be engendered, sculpted, developed or protected. As far as I can tell there is no evidence for this belief, it has not been the subject of enquiry and if you ever ask anyone to expand that view they never get beyond: “it just is”.
The subject of investing in education geared towards the development of human qualities is unthinkable because it is caught in some sort of ideological pincer movement. On the one hand, we follow right-wing economics that creates a health service based on austerity and cost rather than need; on the other, we have a distaste for education and a preference for training that defies logic and gets a bit medieval by claiming (too clever to care) that being able to think somehow pushes any ability to feel from the body - implying that only stupid people can be kind. Personally, I think right-wing economics benefits from undermining education because it enables politicians to both pay and teach nurses less but hey, maybe I’m just a one-socked conspiracy theorist.
However, regardless of my paranoia, we do know that at the heart of Mid Staffs and recent Care Quality Commission reports is a crisis of compassion - the struggle for many of us to hold on to the best of ourselves in difficult circumstances. Surely the most important challenge for nurse education is to develop ways of helping nurses protect, grow, sustain and develop their human qualities? Not just because patients need it and not just because nursing needs to collectively reclaim those characteristics, but because nurses, as individuals, deserve to be protected from the erosion to self that the loss of patience, compassion or softness amounts to.
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Gabriel’s Angel