On Respectful Listening: Gathering Wisdom amid Turmoil

—by Munema Moiz

One health-care worker’s route from occupational therapy to philosophy

In the field of health care, there are few moments for repose. Fifteen to twenty patients a day regularly require food and medication, need help toileting, and have families who want updates and assessments, often leaving care staff on their feet for five or six hours at a time, hastily triaging cases according to urgency. With seemingly no limit to what we owe one another, conscientious health-care workers can teeter dangerously close to burnout and even moral injury. I remember seeing my colleagues coming in early to work, working through their lunch hours, and leaving late because they could not bear to provide substandard care to their patients.

One such case stands out vividly in my memory. I work as an occupational therapist, an obscure rehabilitation profession that focuses on patients recovering their function by treating their cognitive, physical, and environmental needs. I had an elderly patient who was a retired priest. His development of dementia saw him admitted to hospital, and in hopes of lessening the agitation, paranoia, and restlessness caused by the illness, his doctor referred him to me. I soon found that he, like many patients, very much enjoyed reminiscing about his past. Indeed, when given the chance to talk about his life, he was less likely to become impatient and angry with his nursing staff. So, I made it one of my priorities to simply sit with him, encouraging him to recall his life with me.

Fiddling with his rosary, he spoke lucidly about his work as a priest. He described it as very challenging work, saying that his parishioners required his constant attention and care. Often, he explained, their needs went far beyond his expertise. But he found that if he prayed to God, he was able to bring himself to the difficult task of simply listening to his flock. He admitted that he had found it hard to “be” with people, but that this was his task as their priest and that God would do the rest.

I asked him what he thought of his current situation:

How would he counsel himself if he could see himself now? He did not answer for a few minutes. He gazed with cloudy, cataract-ridden eyes at the clock in front of him. Then he responded very gently, almost in a whisper, “No one knows what this is like. But God is closer to me than before. Nobody knows.”

As my caseload demands increased to almost unmanageable levels, I could no longer see my patient consistently. Some of the symptoms of his dementia worsened: he became less and less lucid, and I heard from the nursing staff that he had hit them a few times. I felt frequent guilt at my inability to check on and work with him—without daily therapy, he physically and cognitively deteriorated. Only a few months later, he died.

What will I rely on when I am alone in my hospital bed, with my own faculties failing me and my own mind gasping for meaning in its final few months?

When I decided to pursue philosophy academically, my experiences with this patient were a crucial influence on me. I recall him sitting in his hospital bed—as it turns out, his deathbed— unable to walk or even eat by himself anymore, but still thinking of higher principles. He was a man always drawn to reflect on his life and his work. Perhaps it is outdated to conceive of philosophy as the love of wisdom, but I think of this former priest as a philosopher, because he loved something that felt very close to wisdom. He had a clear vision of what life was and what it should be, and even in his dying days, as his cognitive faculties failed him, he remained contemplative, pondering the significance of events that had happened to him and of people he had met. I firmly believe that these musings resulted from the habits of his younger years, which continued to shape his mind even in old age: he had listened to his parishioners, making him reflective of and receptive to interpreting his own experiences.

Unfortunately, working in health care has not provided me with time to listen to others. Even though my colleagues and I are constantly surrounded by failing health and even death, which should elicit reflection, there is not much time for it. Indeed, most days I am almost jogging down the hallways. My time spent with this gentleman proved an outlier because of a brief lull in patient numbers. But it made me think: What can I do that allows me to reflect on the words of others? Which field concerns itself with the significance of life, with assessing one’s life and judging it by some sort of vision of truth? What will I rely on when I am alone in my hospital bed, with my own faculties failing me and my own mind gasping for meaning in its final few months?

Naturally, this is philosophy.

I came to the University of Toronto with the intention to focus on such philosophy, taking courses in ancient philosophy for this reason. Thanks to this university’s diverse offerings, I was exposed to South Asian philosophy as well. My similar heritage gave me a feeling of affinity to the thinkers from that part of the world. And despite their analytical rigour, I perceived such thinkers to also be concerned with philosophy as a way of living—or even a way of dying.

What I enjoy most about philosophy is the attitude of respectful listening that characterizes the field, even to the dead. Many of my patients have died, and sometimes I feel that their passing remarks about their own lives have been entrusted to me as a type of material for philosophizing: they have to be carefully considered, humbly sorted through, and analyzed with deference, lest the wisdom of the dead be lost.

(Please note: To maintain his anonymity, I have not provided sufficient details about my patient to identify him.)

Munema Moiz is a master’s student in the Department of Philosophy, with research interests in South Asian and Islamic philosophy. She completed her undergraduate studies in Cognitive Science at McGill University and then moved on to a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy at Western University, before deciding to pursue philosophy academically. Outside of philosophy, she is passionate about health care and rehabilitation.