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LOCAL COLUMNIST: I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV

Monica Sheppard

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.

I always picture the actor in a spoof infomercial on “The Simpsons”saying this, but it turns out this catchphrase originated in a 1970s commercial for Sanka coffee, then it reappeared in  the 80s commercial Vicks cough syrup starring an actor who played a doctor in a popular soap opera. Clever marketing idea, huh?

If you haven’t heard it before, the idea behind the phrase is that the guy who is selling you cough syrup (or decaffeinated coffee) is telling you that you should believe his perspective because even though he isn’t really a doctor, he plays one on TV, and that should be enough expertise for you to believe him.

How often should we preface our statements with similar phrasing?

Trust me, on a regular basis I feel like I should start this column with, “I’m not a writer, but I play one in the newspaper.” I am acutely aware of how little I know about most of what I talk about, and I appreciate that a few of you are patient enough to weed through my perspective with the understanding that it is purely that. I can only hope that thoughts from where I sit might be somehow helpful as you consider the view from where you sit. Isn’t that the best that any of us can hope for?

This past week, I have decided that our most commonly used catchphrase should be “I’m not a gun violence expert, but I play one on social media.” I’m not immune to the need for this preface, mind you; Lord knows I have my own ideas about what we “should” be doing. The world is full of us right now, isn’t it?

Worse yet, there are a good number of people out there who should consider saying, “I’m not a gun violence expert, but I play one in your government,” before trying to sell us whatever brand of solution or, more often, excuse they have on the matter.

At the 2017 Rome International Film Festival we screened a wonderfully excruciating film directed by Vincent Grashaw, And Then I Go. It is the story of two misunderstood middle school-aged boys who simmer themselves into a vengeful shooting spree at their school. Based on the acclaimed novel “Project X” by Jim Shepard, the film had me painfully on the edge of my seat, often wanting to yell at the characters on the screen, “Just talk to him!” or “You don’t have to do this!” or “Tell your parents about it!” It was terrible to watch the very complicated story play out in simple choice, after simple choice, after simple choice.

Life’s most complicated situations are often like a spider’s web, one seemingly insignificant strand after another, slowly and inevitably woven into a large and entrapping scene from which there is no escape. It is difficult to see the entire web at once, but each strand is an integral component of its function.

As armchair experts we are generally not able to see the larger scene, no matter how clearly we might see the strands closest to us. In order to see the bigger picture we have to walk around it a bit, explore other sides, ask each other about what else there is to see.

But, it is far easier and, quite honestly, comforting to cling to the bits of truth that we perceive and hurl them like weapons at each other, hoping to hold at bay the terrifying knowledge of just how complicated the situation is, and how little we really know. It is seriously hurtful the way we are willing to talk to each other from the “safe” spot behind the keyboard. What is this way of communicating teaching our children?

What if we worked towards bringing our bits of perspective to the table like pieces of a puzzle, with the hope of forming a more complete picture instead of using them as ammo against each other? What if we acknowledged how little we know and tried reading, and learning, and discussing rather than assuming, and dismissing, and refusing?

Most importantly, what if we modeled for our kids that we can come to each other with our thoughts and worries and weaknesses and be received in a compassionate and cooperative way? What would that do for the anxiety and isolation that they so often feel?

What if we said to each other and our kids, “I’m not an expert, but I would love to tell you about what I see from over here?”

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.