Recently, I attended my 50th high school reunion. To my surprise—and almost astonishment—I was asked to do the memorial eulogy for those who had died. I asked the organizer, whom I never knew well, "Why me?" The answer was: "You're a psychiatrist, so you'll know what to say." That seemed to me the best compliment about our field that I ever heard, so how could I not agree to do it?
Attending this reunion was the "tough love" teacher who taught me whatever good basic writing skills I developed. That class led to taking a creative writing class in college, then a career infused with psychiatric writing.
In response to the eulogy that my wife and I gave—my wife sang “The Way We Were”—this same teacher wondered if I had read “The Art of Loving,” written in 1956 by the renowned psychoanalyst and social philosopher, Erich Fromm. I actually had not. She seemed to think that the book resonated with what I had said about classmates being able to love each other at this stage of life, no matter the prior difficult or distant relationships in high school.
Serendipitously, perhaps, around the same time, I was in the copyediting stage of a book chapter I was asked to write about ethical leadership in psychiatry. I concluded that the highest ethical priority a leader needed to have is a kind of compassionate love for staff. To advocate this as a priority over the traditional ethical priority that patients come first, certainly needed some sort of compelling reference, but none came to mind.
Perhaps, I thought, this perennially beloved book could be the reference I needed. Regressing back, perhaps in the service of my ego, so to psychoanalytically speak, I read the book right after the reunion. After all, this teacher was right back then. Why not 50 years later?
Sure enough, this book provided the justification to add it as the prime reference I needed for compassionate love in psychiatric leaders. The book not only discusses love in all its varieties and relationships, but how difficult it is to achieve the depth of love that matters the most. This kind of love requires maturity, self-knowledge, and courage as its essence. To get there, to get beyond the transient states of falling in love, one has to work at it with practice and concentration, Fromm stresses. This implies why "love thy neighbor as thyself" sounds good, but is not so easy to put into practice. Paired with clear and doable expectations, it indeed is the kind of love that leaders need if they wish to be at their best.
If you are among those who enjoy some summer reading and haven't read this book, I'd put it at the top of the list. It is a short, easy read, yet full of wisdom. Read the 50th anniversary edition from 2006, with an Introduction by Peter D. Kramer, MD, author of the once popular book, “Listening to Prozac.” But rather than listening to Prozac, listen to the kind of love that Fromm recommends. I'm sure you'll come out of reading “The Art of Loving” with the knowledge of how to improve your love and leadership.
Besides that, think about contacting an old high school teacher. He or she may still have something to teach you.