Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Notre Dame and gratitude

Elizabeth Cerceo
Camden, New Jersey, United States

Notre Dame de Paris, brandend. April 15, 2019.
Photograph by Milliped on Wikimedia.

On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. This event highlighted the integral nature of art and beauty in our culture. We often take for granted the beauty that surrounds us and stands as a connection to our past. I was in Paris years ago and went to Notre Dame, but I did not appreciate it as I should have. Parisians themselves said they would pass it every day and not give it a second thought. Hordes of tourists have cycled through as part of a sightseeing checklist. Many people now lament that they took Notre Dame for granted. How often do we deeply consider that which we come across regularly, or a cultural institution that has existed for centuries? Do we stop to appreciate the beauty of the natural world or the art we encounter? How often do we express gratitude for our patients, for the ability to practice medicine and help others, for our families and friends?

Taking a moment to remember all the beauty in our lives, whether we are driving to work, walking through nature, listening to music, appreciating a play, vacationing in Europe, or speaking with a vulnerable patient, gives us the opportunity to express gratitude. The images of Notre Dame in flames jarred me out of my routine. The cathedral is a cultural icon, but I cannot say I had ever thought about it in my years of medical practice. But as it stood engulfed in fire, I realized how grateful I was that such a building could exist, built by human hands.

Studies have suggested that regularly adopting an attitude of thanks can decrease symptoms of burnout. Even as I was deeply saddened by damage to this treasure, I also felt more deeply connected to patients, coming to us as they do with their losses and sorrows. Practicing gratitude can bring us joy and make us more optimistic and alert. It may also make us more forgiving, compassionate, and provide a host of positive physical benefits.1-3 A practice of appreciation may simply involve paying attention for a few moments regularly, or dedicated time spent journaling at the end of the day.

I would not have thought to be grateful for an 850-year-old building over 4700 miles away, but now that she is threatened, I remember how I took for granted the 150 years of work that went into the construction of this beautiful cathedral. How can we integrate the burning of Notre Dame into our own experiences, to find strength through suffering? The answer may be to recognize that we can bear witness by expressing our gratitude and reflecting on all of the things we have to be thankful for.


  1. Seligman, M.; Steen, T.A.; Park, N. and Peterson, C. (2005). “Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions,” American Psychologist, 60:410-421.
  2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 377-389.
  3. Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005) Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.

ELIZABETH CERCEO, MD, FACP, FHM, is an associate professor of medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and a teaching fellow of their Academy of Master Educators. She serves as an Associate Program Director for the internal medicine residency and is the course director for the Medical Humanities at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. She also oversees the Wellness initiatives for Graduate Medical Education. As a clinical hospitalist, she is involved with education from the medical student level to faculty development, whether at the bedside, the lecture hall, or the gallery.  

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