Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2021

Prof. describes factors of a good life in the context of health care

By SARAH ELBASHEER | January 30, 2020

On Jan. 24, Margaret Chisolm, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Hopkins, presented a talk about Wendell Berry’s story Fidelity.

The presentation was given as a part of the inaugural year of One Health Care Community One Book. The initiative is an effort to engage members of Hopkins Medicine and East Baltimore communities in a range of discussions, talks, and presentations that connect medicine with artistic expression and humanist well-being. It builds on the concept of narrative medicine embodied in AfterWards, a program at the Hopkins Hospital which invites caregivers to monthly meetings to contemplate art or literature related to medicine. 

For her talk, “Living the Good Life: Lessons from Wendell Berry’s Fidelity,” Chisolm used the book as a point of inquiry around what it means to be a human and lead a good life.

Questions about what it means to live a good life have been pondered for millennia by philosophers and other great minds. Chisolm refers to Aristotle, who used the Greek word eudaimonia to describe the good life, which most closely translates to “flourishing.”

The theologian Jonathan Pennington, author of The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, writes that “flourishing has been and is the driving force behind every philosophy and religion known to humanity.” According to Chisolm, this driving force is the goal to grow or develop in a healthy way.

“Flourishing is the telos [end goal] for all humanity,” Chisolm said.

She contends that modern ideas in both science and art can also answer the question of what it means to live a good life. For the sciences, Chisolm refers to Tyler J. VanderWeele, a Harvard University epidemiologist and director of the Human Flourishing Program. VanderWheele argues that flourishing represents a powerful way to view health in its fullest sense, where all parts of a person’s life is good.

In his 2017 paper in the journal PNAS, VanderWheele presented a scientifically based model of this sense of flourishing. The model included various pathways by which individuals can reach healthy outcomes. Such outcomes include aspects of physical health; character and virtue; happiness and life satisfaction; meaning and purpose; and mental health.

Ultimately, the pathways to flourishing — grounded in VanderWheele’s methodologically rigorous scientific evidence — are family, work, education and community.

However, according to Chisolm, science is not the only place where one can turn to for answers to the questions of what it means to live a good life. Art can also shed light on this question, as can be seen in Wendell Berry’s Fidelity. According to Chisolm, we humans make meaning of our experiences in stories, such as through narrative devices.

“Berry brings the flourishing pathways and outcomes to life in a way that we can relate to personally and connect with emotionally, which gives them deeper meaning and impact than any scientific model can,” Chisolm said.

In Fidelity, Berry highlights all four of VanderWheele’s pathways: family, work, education and community.

The theme of family is central to the story, where it is mentioned on every page. 

Another prominent theme Chisolm emphasized in Fidelity is that of community.

“Throughout the story, the community of family and friends reflect on the central character’s life and measure it — all in all — as a good one.”

Through the use of Berry’s literary devices, the story’s community remembers the central character’s happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, as well as his close social relationships.

Using two different methods of inquiry — one artistic and one scientific — both Berry and VanderWheele arrive at the same conclusion to how one can lead a good life and what it means to lead a good life. Or in other words, how so-called flourishing pathways leads to flourishing outcomes.

According to Chisolm, such answers are fundamental to the work of health care professionals.

“All health-care professionals — at least currently — are human beings, most of whom take care of other human beings,” she said.

Chisolm explained that in order to direct patients towards healthy recovery, health-care professionals must consider who they are as a person and understand the motivations patients have to follow their directions.  

“As an addiction medicine specialist, I routinely recognize that the key to long-term recovery from substances is getting to know my patient as a whole and to help them progress along these flourishing pathways,” Chisolm said in an interview with The News-Letter.

For the Hopkins community, Chisolm suggests that faculty, staff and students continue to work on nurturing relationships among themselves and between the patients and local communities they serve in order to flourish.

On the Homewood Campus, one way this is being promoted is through the arts. 

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, sessions will be held for pre-health students to explore what it means to be human, to be a health-care professional and to lead a good life. 

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