The Danger of Our Assumptions

“Doctor, I am short of breath,” the patient said to the medical student, “I feel that it is harder for me to breathe.”

A look of concern came over the medical student’s face. I could tell he was worried. I could almost see the wheels of his brain turning as he internally reviewed the causes of dyspnea (doctor speak for short of breath.) With a tone of deep seriousness he began to review the symptoms of heart disease and lung disease. He asked about swollen legs, chest pain, chest pressure, and irregular heartbeat, about high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a smoking history. He questioned the patient about asthma, chronic cough, wheezing and cough. All of the answers were negative.

After about 5 minutes I interrupted the student. “Let me see if I can clarify things,” I said, turning to the patient. “Tell me what you mean when you say you are short of breath. Do you mean how you feel if you tried to sprint a mile, or do you just feel as if you have to think about a breath? Some people say they are short of breath but they can still exercise, they just feel different in their chest. What do you feel?”

The patient quickly answered that it was the latter. There was no true shortness of breath, no lack of air, which meant the symptoms were not due to heart or lung disease. The symptoms were not due to any significant illness at all. The medical student’s questions had been unnecessary. He assumed he knew what the patient meant by “shortness of breath” and based all of his decisions on that assumption. In the case of the student the error was harmless. Doctors are not always so lucky. I have seen many patients harmed over the years by false assumptions.

The harm of incorrect assumptions is not limited to the medical profession. It can be especially harmful in relationships. There have been far too many times in my life when I made a judgment that later, when more information was available, was proved to be false. If I had slowed down and listened much harm would have been avoided.

Our natural tendency to assume is a part of the brokenness of our thinking. It is something we all need to work on. It is also the subject of the second part of the series of talks I gave on brokenness. The talk can be found on my vimeo site,

-          Bart

I often speak to church groups on a variety of topics, from relationships to Bible teachings. Many of these messages are available on my vimeo site. If you are interested in having me come and speak to your group, please contact me through the website.