Gary Oftedahl: Learning from Aesop
As I was catching up on my readings from Aesop’s fables, several issues came to my mind. First, and foremost, what drives someone to consider the perusal of ancient fables as an exercise worth considering? I have to admit, that may be a question for pondering, causing internal reflection which might lead to valuable insights into my true persona. But let’s leave that for another day. Second, the value of a fable is in it’s application to today’s situations, providing an imagery which simplifies or magnifies our thinking. Such is it with one of Aesop’s lesser known fables—The Stomach and the Body.
As Aesop tells it, in the distant past, as hard as it is to believe, the parts of the human body did not function in unison and harmony as they do today. It appears that once each member of the body had its own opinion and was able to speak. One can only imagine the cacophony of conversation. As discussions evolved, especially between the mouth, arms, teeth and legs, there was a consensus among them that the stomach was a very lazy participant, noncontributory to the overall benefit of the body. While they each worked diligently at various tasks, the stomach merely sat there, right in their midst, always at ease, enjoying the delights that were presented to him—through the individual efforts of all the other parts.
This dissatisfaction led to a revolt: the hands refused to deliver food to the mouth, the mouth refused to take in any food, the teeth (one of the louder complainers so it seems) refused to chew anything. Initially pleased with their efforts, they soon wasted away, in one version of the fable leading to an untimely demise, in another, finally coming to their senses.
In focusing on a happy ending with a positive outlook, the body parts came to realize that the work done by the stomach was no small matter, and that the food consumed by the stomach was no more than what he gave back to all the other parts (even as they complained) which allowed them to flourish and thrive.
The moral of the story is that the hard work and contributions of others are not always immediately obvious, and that if there is not cooperation and collaboration, may move from one part suffering to the suffering of the whole. One can also learn that each part has a significant role to play in supporting the overall good, but it is only accomplished through a mutual understanding and valuing of each individual part’s value.
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but there’s something from this which resonates in health care reform. It feels that we’re at the point in time of the body in Aesop’s world, where each part speaks independently, and is considering it’s own viability, without understanding that in attempting to meet their individual needs, decrease their level of suffering, there may be great negative impact on the overall body—the entire health system and the population we serve.
I’ve written before about collaboration, or more precisely “collabetition” which addresses the need to collaborate even in the face of competition. Aesop was a wise fellow, or so it seems. If the human body moved from individual efforts and focus, to one of working together in collaboration, unison, and cooperation to survive, can we in health care learn from Aesop and his fable of “The Stomach and the Body?” If so, at whatever level, we can hopefully learn from each other and move from many voices and many opinions presently heard to a single voice unified enough to support the survival of the system we live in.