Illness and Suffering   /   Fall 2006   /    Reviews

Eric J. Cassell’s

<em>The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine</em>

Roberta Culbertson

Eric Cassell writes for the aspiring clinician, but he also writes for the rest of us. To the degree humans take healing one another as part of being human, we must respect the complicated, individual, personal dimensions of suffering. Cassell argues that all suffering is uniquely one’s own, born of one’s particular biography and makeup, which can be hidden even from the sufferer. We will never know the suffering of others, nor they our suffering. To be human is to reach across that divide using the tentative, gentle feeling called compassion to counter the fundamental unknowability of another’s distress. In a long, reasoned, respectful, and analytical essay, Cassell suggests how this can happen and why for the physician it must.


Suffering, Cassell says, is a matter of meaning, and meaning itself is the product of experience, emotion, biography, social structure, and even the transcendental experiences of the sufferer. He argues that these must be part of the physician’s perspective of the patient as a person rather than a carrier of disease. All experiences of the body, including those of disease, happen not to a body alone but to the one who perceives that body from the inside, who makes meaning and emotion out of those bodily experiences. That same body responds to the meanings made and feels ill or well as it hears the voices of others, feels the play of emotions, and sits perpetually in audience to the lectures in its own head.

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