Saturday, July 21, 2018

Medications and Religious Rituals

This morning as I put the pills I take into the pill container I fill each week, I thought about religious ritual.

On average, Americans over 65 take between 4-5 different medications each day. (See here and here for more information on pill-taking.) I noticed my feeling of pleasure as I put each of the 4 pills I take into the slots of the days of the week. I was carrying out an instrumental task, but the emotion I felt came from an entirely different realm.

I understood the rationale for each of the medications and found myself thinking of them as friendly presences, whose aim was to minister to my well-being. These thoughts led me to recall all the families I'd visited at home in my years of practice who showed me the Saints (Catholic) or Gods (Hindu) they prayed to and who they saw as crucial contributors to their health.

Although in theological terms I define myself as a "secular humanist," I respond to the pill-container filling with the same underlying emotions that my religiously observant patients felt about their Saints and Gods. It's important that I understand the medical rationale for the medications and their potential side effects, but I'm sure that a component of their efficacy comes from my attributing to them a benevolent intention to heal.

In the early 1970s I chose to work on the Jewish High Holidays, based on my lack of theological acceptance of the dogmas the holidays were based on. On Rosh Hashanah I was making a home visit to a Catholic family whose treatment I was involved with. They proudly showed me the little alter they used for prayer. It occurred to me that they might not have any more theological conviction about the Saints they prayed to than I did for Jewish theology. But unlike me, they were respecting the traditions and values they'd been brought up with.

From that day on, whether or not I was attending religious services, I didn't work on the High Holidays. I'm grateful to the family that taught me to distinguish between ritual, symbolic action, and literal theological beliefs.

In similar fashion, I'm grateful for the caretaking attitudes I associate with the medications I put into the pill container this morning.

(For a previous post on why religious language can be so valuable in clinical practice, see here, and for a discussion of physicians as "Counsellors," see here.)

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