About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

I See Myself In You

“I can’t imagine…”

“I can’t understand…”

“I can’t relate…”

“I would never…”

When you think or say these phrases, what is the context?  What message are you harboring, or trying to convey—connection or distance, or something else? 

Can you truly not imagine, understand, or relate?  What if you tried harder (or at all)?  How would it affect you if you could imagine, understand, and relate, or if you would ever, under certain circumstances?  How would this altered relationship to the situation (and person) feel?

I have written before about what happened when I said, “I can’t imagine” to a black classmate.  It was humbling.  I submit that we could all humble ourselves a little more these days.

Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado

My last pre-pandemic solo trip was to Loveland, Colorado, for the last retreat of Leading Organizations to Health, Cohort 11.  It feels cosmically fitting for my first solo trip since COVID to be a return for the first in person LOH alumni gathering in this time, last weekend.  OMG, friends, it was the next best thing to going home.  Other than our leaders, I had only met my fellow alums over Zoom these last two years.  And now I have 8 amazing new friends.  Though separated by occupation, specialty, generation, and geography, we all speak fluently the as yet rare and reverent language of relationship-centered leadership.  This is my tribe.

We start our sessions with poems.  Please Call Me By My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh spoke deeply to me, especially these lines:

I am the twelve year-old girl, refugee in a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,

and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

Whoa.

I have written on this blog many times about seeking, honoring, and really exercising our shared humanity —35 posts appear when I search the site for the phrase.  Even since I started blogging 7 years ago, though, it feels ever more urgent that we practice this every day.

This card hangs on my kitchen cabinet.

This week my good friend Donna asked me to re-articulate my Why.  Again, I’m sure it was cosmic inspiration that moved her.  Have I ever written my Why statement here?  It was ‘to optimize relationships with and between all people I meet.’  And by optimize I meant to make more understanding, more connecting, and more meaningful.  Today, I think I have to be much more specific:  

My Why is to help us all see at least a part of ourselves in every person we meet. 

I intend to practice and model this first myself—to really internalize the truth that I am myself and also every other soul—that we are all born with the same needs, the same aspirations, the same set of possibilities.  Each of our unique, complex constellations of birth circumstance lottery, serial life experiences, and intrinsic wiring shapes us in ways we can only partially understand in our thinking brains.  What we have not the capacity to think or speak, often can only be felt.  And when we contact another soul who has also felt what we feel, or who can imagine, understand, or relate in some way, WOW, how healing is that?  I bet we can all recall at least a few instances when those deep, meaningful connections occurred across apparently wide gaps of background, class, or other social construct.  And why do we remember?  Because we were moved, alerted, and maybe a little alarmed?  Or maybe we have forgotten, because to come too close to someone’s experience that makes us uncomfortable can trigger a distancing reflex—self-image-protecting, perhaps.

In recent years I have internalized the admonishment to never say, or really even think, “What is wrong with you?”  Rather, I remind myself to ask, “What happened to you?”  In every context, this one switch opens the door to curiosity, imagination, understanding, relationship, and connection.  It allows space for our deeply shared humanity to surface and teach me what I need to know, or at least to prompt humility ahead of blind judgment and dismissal.  Substitute “them” for “you” in these sentences, and see how easily and willingly we throw away whole groups of people with our in- and out-group identities and ideologies.

May we all see a part of ourselves in every person we meet, especially the ones who make us say, “I can’t imagine, I can’t understand, I can’t relate, and I would never…”  Let that seeing move us to put down our judgments and take up empathy, compassion, and connection instead.  We will all be better for it.

Place Holder: Elizabeth Lesser’s Wisdom

From Elizabeth Lesser’s FB post

Hiya, friends! There’s a lot going on right now and my relationship with this blog is evolving… transforming? Not sure when I’ll be back with anything of my own that’s worth sharing. I’m confident it will all come in its own time.

Meanwhile, please enjoy Elizabeth Lesser’s Facebook post from today, which speaks directly to my soul. Maybe you’ll resonate as well, and it can bring you comfort and peace as it does to me.

ODOMOBaaT, my peeps. Until next time.

***

I still have abiding hope for our times. I have it because I am a student of history and I know that human communities have struggled through other desperate times: famines, disasters, droughts, floods, and plagues; the fires of war, genocide, slavery, despots, and dictators. Like the mythical phoenix bird, we have risen from the ashes many times before. Eras of destruction have been followed by those of recovery and peace, creativity and great leaps of ingenuity.

I was born in the 1950s, an era that came out of the global brokenness of World War II. To many, the 50s were a time of healing and rebuilding and stability. But to others, they were a time of racism, sexism, and stifling conformity. The 50s gave birth to the 60s which, on the one hand, brought freedom, justice, and liberating creativity, and on the other hand went too far and too fast for many. It has always been thus—cultures swinging back and forth between brokenness and breakthrough. Humanity winding its way through growth spurts and amnesia, destruction and advancement, but always moving, always changing, and, from my point of view, always being offered a choice: to languish or to rise, to perish or to mature into a more magnificent expression of life.

Can we rise? I am eternally optimistic that we can. I have seen people change; I have changed myself. I know it is possible. Even neuroscience is confirming this. Brain scientists once believed that by early adulthood the physical structure of the human brain was fixed. But newer research has revealed that our brains never stop changing—that from childhood on, new neural pathways are formed when we learn new information, change old patterns, or confront physical and emotional trauma. This is called neuroplasticity, and it confirms for me that we are equipped to respond creatively and constructively to stressful and difficult times—that it is possible for all of us, as a species, to create new pathways in our collective brain.

Sometimes it feels way too exhausting to keep carving those new pathways! But I like the way the poet Rumi gently chides me to keep on going, to stay optimistic, to head toward what’s possible:

Drum sounds rise on the air,

and with them, my heart.

A voice inside the beat says,

I know you are tired,

but come.

This is the way.

Loving Competition

Orange zest sourdough.
Sven is now 3.5 months old.

Claggy. Stodgy. Squidgy. Prove, not proof.

Daughter and I are learning the language of British baking by binging the wonderful Netflix show. It’s the best reality TV there is, no question.

Every season starts with 12, sometimes 13 amateur bakers from all over the UK, men and women, old and young. Each themed week (cake, biscuit, pastry, bread, and others) they undertake three challenges, one of which is conducted blind, meaning they have no idea what it is until it starts, and the judges rank the identical attempts without knowing who made which. From the beginning, we the audience can relate to the bakers as friends, coworkers, and family, thanks to fun biography videos interspersed throughout the episodes. Daughter and I choose our champions early on.

One person gets eliminated every week for nine weeks, then the final three bake their butts off for the crystal cake stand trophy in week 10. That last contest ends in a great big garden party where friends and family, as well as previously eliminated bakers, gather to celebrate an entire summer of convectionary creations they never dreamed of making before.

Despite constant tension and suspense from time constraints, mixing failures, collapsing structures and the like, there is minimal, if any, drama. No sabotage, no trash talk, no passive aggression, condescension, or ad hominem of any kind. In fact, the bakers *help* one another every single episode. They cheer enthusiastically for each other’s successes. They rush to assist stragglers to present in time. They banter with ease. And there is a lot of hugging.

Make no mistake, they are each in it to win. Their projects span cultures, geography, seasons, and all genres and media of things bakable, and their flavor, texture, and height ambitions drop our jaws every episode. And though the premise of the show is competition and winning, its ethos is grounded solidly in love. The bakers simply love baking. It is their passion. They respect and admire the judges, one another, and the art of their craft. And by the end of the season, they love one another, as evidenced by post-production coda videos of cohort members cavorting, crisscrossing the UK to hang out, cook, travel, and karaoke together.

I binge this show because it lifts my spirits. The humor, the personalities, and the creativity, ohmygod! But much more than any of that, it’s the relationships and connections that mean the most to me. Somehow the show leaders have created a culture wherein it’s okay—expected, even—to show vulnerability, to admit to fear, self-doubt, and struggle. And in so doing, the bakers form a tight tribe of safety and mutual support in the striving. While in competition, there is no conflict. I do my best and you do yours. We each show up to give it our all, and we leave it all on the table, literally. At the end of the weekend we trust that the elimination process is fair. We celebrate those who make it through to next week, and we surround the one saying so long with tears of empathy and gratitude for such a worthy rival, who elevates our own game. Group hug!

I write “we” as if I’m one of them, as if I could dream of joining this loving tribe. I wish! But don’t we all wish for this? Wouldn’t we all benefit and grow from the nudging and pushing of loving competition and rivalry, from showing one another what might be possible if we dream a little bigger, take a little more risk, and show up all and only ourselves? We have nothing to prove to anyone but our best selves, and even though only one can take home the prize, we know that that person truly earned it, and we all became better in the process. No grudges, no bitterness. Only love, growth, and friendship.

I wonder if the Olympics are like this? Higher, faster, stronger! Elite athletes. Star bakers. Regular folks.

Who pushes you by pushing themselves, leading you by this example? How do you do this for others? In the end our most important competition is the one against our former selves. We play the infinite game of growth and self-improvement alongside one another, each with our own goal posts. We ourselves may be great. But without each other, we won’t ever get far.