How can you learn from, appreciate, and grieve for other cultures?
An Introduction by H. Steven Moffic, MD
For those recent readers of our columns, you may have noticed my desire to bring different perspectives to how we in psychiatry can appreciate and communicate with each other cross-culturally, especially given the volatile trauma of the Mideast war, the Ukraine war, and other divisive conflicts. We had a guest column a week ago by Vincenzo Di Nicola, MPhil, MD, PhD, FCAHS, that presented a most poetic interchange of poems among different cultures, faiths, and professions in Israel and Montreal. Today we have another guest author, Emily Diamond, who I know best for her 2 chapters written for our upcoming book, The Eastern Religions, Spirituality, and Psychiatry. Here she presents her innovative and poetic way to learn, appreciate, and grieve those from other cultures. It may help you to do so, too.
-H. Steven Moffic, MD
Many years ago, I started a tradition when a war erupts. I think about ordinary individual’s lives being turned upside down, usually in places I have never been—and I start cooking. I teach myself how to make some of the most beloved dishes from that place, where life is now violent and tenuous. I keep one eye on the news, and I teach myself the favorite things that those individuals like eating, reading from the books and diaries of home cooks. I learn what children might eat after school, favorite street foods, everyday staples, and celebratory dishes. I am moved when the kitchen fills with aromas I have never smelled before. These are the immeasurable losses being endured, except in the statistics of hunger and malnourishment.Bombs fall, and I study their most beloved poems.
In newspaper writing, the saying is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” It is rarely the killing that I focus on. I think it is because the horrors of war are something I grew up hearing about. My mother is a survivor of World War II. The agony of war does not change much over the generations, but to whom it is happening does, the nightmare of it moving restlessly from place to place around the world.
I have told my students that so much of who we are is determined simply by where the stork dropped us. For me, trying to learn some of what made up the everyday poetry of other’s lives is a way of trying to make a connection to those who are living and dying simply because of where they were born.
It is also a way to grieve because once you have learned to cook meals cherished on the other side of the world, or have even one thing in your home made by hands enduring the psychological and physical violence of war, then it moves beyond a story in the news. Perhaps it is my way, and it would not work for others. For me, it means that if I were to meet someone who has lost everything dear to them, I know I can listen and I can care. It is likely why I am a trauma researcher now. Inspired by participants in my study, I also now work on a recipe bank so that home cooks can share how to make a beautiful, inexpensive, and nutritious meal for someone who does not have much.
My mother was once an enemy. She was just an ordinary child growing up in Japan during World War II. Wars can change national boundaries, they can produce legacies of mistrust and hate, and they can change the power dynamics of a region, but one thing they always do is take the lives of ordinary civilians. Wars begin and end with 2 decisive notes, Us and Them. In the process, they scar survivors, sometimes their descendants, and the land. War is the most destructive of dichotomies, and this is how I try and make one small bridge over it.
Dr Diamond teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. She is also the Director of the Health Inequality Studies Group. Her focus has been on environmental factors associated with the rise in autism, geo-spatial mapping, health, and adversity. Prior to graduate school, she was a painter.
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.