Patrick C. Beeman on Socrates, Medicine, and Knowing Thyself

Noodle Expert Patrick C. Beeman shares his thoughts on Socrates, medicine, and the importance of knowing thyself.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Socrates. The man was esteemed for his intellectual humility and, at the same time, renowned for his wisdom. He searched deeply into the very nature and causes of reality, not stopping at the what, but stretching toward the why. At the same time, he was always teaching. Through the very intellectual curiosity that earned him respect for being the wisest of men, he helped his students learn not just facts and concepts, but how to learn independently. If I could spend a year with Socrates, I'd learn to ask and teach through questions just as he did.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

"Know thyself." This was one of two inscriptions at the Oracle's temple in Delphi in Ancient Greece. These two words have had an important impact on many dimensions of my life, from the intellectual and spiritual to the physical and professional. If, for example, I knew that I didn't like running, it doesn't mean that giving up exercise is an option. It might be time to take up weight lifting or boxing. Likewise, if some study method just doesn't work for a person, she needs to find the methodology that does.

As a physician, I've learned that I have to write notes immediately after a patient-visit. Some of my colleagues will see all their patients and write notes at the end of the day. If I tried that strategy, I would confuse the patients' stories, meshing pieces from each encounter, and my documentation wouldn't be as good as it could be. So, with rare exception, I immediately write my notes after seeing a patient.

I've also learned that I do my best, most productive writing in the mornings. If I pay bills, do household chores, and run errands in the morning, saving the writing for later, I won't be as efficient, creative, or productive. You have to know yourself.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Rome — the cultural capital of the West. For students from a European heritage, there is enough in Rome (art, architecture, beauty, history, music, folklore, spirituality) to help someone appreciate her roots and get in touch with the foundation of her culture. For those who are not culturally European, Rome provides a good historical introduction to the West, while also being firmly established in modernity.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

After I earned my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I started working on a Master's in philosophy. In the same period, I decided I wanted to go to medical school and needed to take a year's worth of undergraduate general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology. In short, I was taking a lot of courses.

At the time, I knew next to nothing about science. I had never failed a test during college, but I managed to fail my first physics test. It was a shock. I had studied hard and thought I understood the material. The grade told a different story. I was reminded of the Socratic advice to "know thyself." I knew that I would have to devote extra time to physics because it didn't come as easily for me as other subjects. At the same time, failing that test taught me both humility and empathy. One just can't be good at everything!

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I chose to go into medicine because, as a philosophy student, I believed I could make a greater impact on others' lives by practicing a "living philosophy" rather than by cogitating alone in an ivory tower. Philosophy should end in action and not just mere thought.

These convictions and my motivation to enter medicine were heavily influenced by my religious faith and beliefs as well. Medicine is very easily idealized. However, it takes a lot to maintain one's idealism in the face of the day-to-day experiences of a physician, with long hours, ever-growing piles of paperwork, constant demands on one's attention and time, and the frustrations associated with being unable to help some people due to factors outside one's control.

Prior to medical school, I expected that each patient-encounter would be an opportunity to save someone's life or affect their health positively. And while I have saved a few lives and hopefully improved some as well, I have also made mistakes, been impatient, and given in to feelings of "burnout." But the Delphic Oracle's advice was "know thyself." I try to be conscious of my weaknesses, learn from my mistakes, and "catch" myself if I find I'm departing too far from the idealism — which always lives deep inside most of us who pursue medicine as a profession — that originally brought me to this career.

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