In Praise of Curiosity

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Here’s to being curious in 2024!

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An Introduction by H. Steven Moffic, MD

Ever since the terrible current conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted worse than ever on the dawn of October 7, 2023, I assumed divisiveness between Jews and Muslims would generally increase. I hoped that would not happen among psychiatrists, but it has, often without talking through any perceived differences in reactions or interpretations. I thought if we experts in therapeutic relationships could not collaborate across our differences, who could?

As a sort of antidote, I then hoped for guest columns on examples cross-cultural and interfaith psychiatric collaborations. One from November 20, 2023, was a rare and heartwarming poetic interchange led by Vincenzo Di Nicola,MPhil, MD, PhD, FCAHS, titled “The Gaza-Israel War: A Major Poetic Emergency.”

Now we have another, but one with an unexpected twist and turn. This is from Andrew McLean, MD, MPH, who has exhibited such collaborations in so many ways, including chapters on the recent books I have edited on religions and psychiatry.

I do not want to spoil your discovery of his journey, but let’s just say it incorporates the best of a psychiatrist by being curious, humble, and respectful of the other. Thank you for being such a role model, Andy.

-H. Steven Moffic, MD


We are reeling from a pandemic experience, ongoing wars, and political discord. Even prior to this, we saw an uptick in professional burnout and global mental health concerns, which have only appeared to grow.

“Despair is in the air,” and while for many this is based on certain realities, for others it can be a result of misshapen perspective—cognitive distortion—in part fed by social media and building upon our confirmation biases. Responses to stress often include perceived self-protective action such as isolation/withdrawal, ie, “hunkering down,” despite the fact that surgeon general Vivek Murthy has declared loneliness and isolation an “epidemic.”1 Resilient attitudes and mitigating factors against burnout include recalling one’s purpose, finding meaning in experiences, and recapturing one’s essence.At times, those reminders present themselves readily. Other times, we need to go searching. Tied to such attitudes are intentional behaviors—finding a way, despite our exhaustion, to say, “yes.” To be actively curious. It is both simple and profound; Einstein is quoted as saying, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”2

Being curious today means changing the television or radio channel from your favorite broadcast. It means listening intently to an opinion which you do not espouse. It means finding empathy.

Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”3

Being mindful of carbon footprints, we can experience fellow citizens (of nation and globe) virtually or in-person.

Meaningful examples that have broadened my own perspective have included a discussion in the Atlas Mountains with an Iraqi psychiatrist whose family experienced trauma during “Operation Iraqi Freedom”; having breakfast with an Israeli colleague in Tel Aviv, while later visiting occupied Palestinian territories; seeing the wonders of Cape Town and touring Townships and Robben Island; and visiting Tiananmen Square after climbing the Great Wall. Hopefully I will visit the concentration camps and stalags of former Nazi Germany to pay homage to those who died, as well as to my uncle who was held as a prisoner of war.

Saying yes means being curious to learn more so as to write chapters for books on psychiatry and Islamophobia (community resilience), anti-Semitism (prejudice), and volunteer to work with Afghan refugees and disaster victims in the US. It means having lived in a developing small island nation and assisting their government in disaster mental health planning.

Another example of literally turning the dial is when I was the medical director for our state’s department of human services. Our state borders Canada, and I had tuned in to CBC radio and heard an interview with an articulate woman who was pushing back on the overuse and at times misappropriation of the term “radicalization” of young Muslim men. Impressed with her ability to balance the discussion with reason and tact, I emailed her that I had listened. Since that time a decade ago, I have found myself (and many other non-Muslims) corralled by “Aunty” Shahina Siddiqui’s infectious passion for human rights and have become involved in training others around issues of resilience and mental health in Canada. Shahina is a champion for the marginalized and has partnered with others including LGBTQIA2S+ and Indigenous populations in their quest for justice. She has railed against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other discriminatory acts. She does not see this as an issue of strange bed fellows. She sees this as an issue of human rights for all.

Dr Faith Fitzgerald wrote, “I believe that it is curiosity that converts strangers (the objects of analysis) into people we can empathize with.”4

Here’s to a New Year of being curious—about others, about the world.

Dr McLean is Clinical Professor and NRI/Lee A. Christoferson Sr, MD, Endowed Chair in Neuroscience, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, and Associate Dean for Wellness at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

References

1. New Surgeon General Advisory raises alarm about the devastating impact of the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States.US Department of Health and Human Services. News release. May 3, 2023. Accessed January 2, 2024. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/03/new-surgeon-general-advisory-raises-alarm-about-devastating-impact-epidemic-loneliness-isolation-united-states.html

2. Einstein to Carl Seelig, March 11, 1952, AEA 39-013. Accessed January 2, 2024. https://www.asl-associates.com/einsteinquotes.htm

3. Twain M. The Innocents Abroad.The American Publishing Company; 1869:493.

4. Fitzgerald FT. Curiosity. Ann Intern Med. 1999;130(1):70-72.

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