Pre-Order Available: The Healer’s Burden

I am beyond thrilled to share that this book I had the privilege to contribute an essay to, The Healer’s Burden: Stories and Poems of Professional Grief, is now available for pre-order. My essay is titled “Silent Intercession,” and I am so looking forward to slowly making my way through the rest of the pieces.

Here is a description of the book from the editors:

What is Professional Grief?

Ignore. Suppress. Hide. Work in high-loss healthcare environments commonly demands turning away from one’s interior experiences in order to rapidly turn toward the next patient. In a culture that discourages vulnerability, how can a care provider effectively deal with the challenging emotions that naturally arise when faced with death, especially now in this critical time of pandemic? Thankfully, The Healer’s Burden: Stories and Poems of Professional Grief makes a space to tend this occult grief, and not a moment too soon. In a broad array of artistic and accessible perspectives, healthcare workers from multiple disciplines bravely pull back the curtain on their experiences of loss. Despite delving into death, The Healer’s Burden eschews the twin traps of despair on the one hand and platitude on the other. Using principles of narrative medicine, the editors catalyze a much-needed conversation about professional grief by including thoughtful questions and writing prompts. This book is a must for educators and clinicians alike who wish to constructively engage with rather than avoid their experiences of patient death.

With a foreword by Rana Awdish, MD, author of LA Times best-selling memoir In Shock:
“Reckoning with grief is no small task. But ignoring it is no longer necessary. ”

I can’t encourage you enough to buy this book, and share it with the healthcare professionals around you. It’s such an important time for us to bring this conversation to light in this extraordinary year that is 2020.

Vision and Faithfulness

What a curious journey the past year has been. People have been asking me what’s next, and I’ve been asking the same question. I’ve been blogging for awhile about the internal issues I often wrestle with as a pediatric ICU nurse. The writing started purely for my own clarity and catharsis, but colleagues resonated with it, and I slowly began to realize I was speaking for a collective voice without even intending to do so. I was fortunate enough to be granted opportunities to write for Off the Charts, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing, which has been a tremendous joy. I was certain there had to be books and TED/TEDxTalks speaking to the really gritty, nuanced, complicated issues that nurses wrestle with when constantly caring for the sick, suffering and dying – resources that weren’t overly clinical in nature but didn’t diminish the issues with mere platitudes or coats of sugar. I’m still rather dumbfounded at the dearth of books and TEDTalks along these lines. We need strong voices that speak to these issues because the truth is, not all moments in nursing feel meaningful or worth their effort for numerous reasons; yet so many of us still love the work and believe in its essence, or at least what we still believe the essence to be. Often, the struggle in trying to not lose our grip on the essence is the wrestling we must do with the many extra arms that have grown out of its original core – ethical, logistical, administrative, morally and socially challenging arms that all now come attached. This strange thing about nursing is that its own arms sometimes now attack its own heart. This is what we are constantly learning to navigate.

I want(ed) to write a book, but being in the throes of motherhood with two very young children, I was dismayed to find that writing a book is not just writing a book (as if the writing itself is as effortless as that sounds). It’s convincing a publisher that you’ve got enough of a social media following, enough of an audience by way of scheduled speaking appointments, enough of a legitimate voice that will be worth the publisher’s efforts to put it into print and disseminate it. I was disheartened. I had my little blog and the confident support of coworkers, but not much beyond that.

Then…the TEDxTalk, well, it just happened. Honestly when I look back, it’s the only way I know to describe how it became a part of my story. It came together, came apart, and then it came alive. It was painful, empowering, deflating, exhilarating, and for all these reasons it was ultimately a ten-minute capture of my very heart for and about the experience of nursing. 

As a result of the TEDxTalk, numerous speaking opportunities have been extended to me, past and now future.

I presented at Grand Rounds in our hospital on the topic, “Integrating Work-Related Grief for a More Wholehearted Practice,” looking at wholeheartedness not in the sense of “I’m all good,” but in the sense that we can bring all that we have – our joys and sorrows, our convictions and our uncertainties – as real sources of healing and empathy for our patients. Quite frankly, I expected a turnout of about 15 people and imagined they would all be my PICU colleagues, attending for moral support more than anything. Instead it turned out to be a crowd of 60-70 people, very multidisciplinary: physicians, social workers, physical therapists, child life specialists, chaplains, and of course, nurses. I was taken aback by the hunger for this conversation, the gasps and the tears when I said the things that we all feel but seem to have such little space to say. We’ve all been exerting so much energy protecting others from our own grief, and suddenly there was this space to let down our walls. You could feel the relief, the shared understanding, and no small amount of wonder at the question,  “It’s ok to feel these things? And you all feel it too?”

I spoke at the RN Residency Graduation Ceremony about giving our humanity, rather than our presumed super-humanity, as the best gift possible to our patients. Can we give young nurses permission from the start to be human? Yes, we can; in fact, we must.

Most recently, I spoke at the AACN UCLA 2018 Leadership Symposium together with AACN President Christine Schulman on AACN’s current theme, “Guided by Why.” My presentation titled “Finding Meaning and Resilience in Times of Grief, Ethical Dilemmas and Exhaustion” felt like a bit much to cover in 50 minutes, until I realized my goal was not so much to go in-depth with each of those issues, as it was to present underlying questions about why we actually struggle with each of these issues so much. I love thinking outside the box and not saying all the things that have already been said (because truly, others say those things better than I.) I deeply appreciated people who approached me throughout the rest of the day and shared their stories of grief and struggle with me. I never presume to have all the answers, but I always want to have more of the conversations.

There are now additional speaking appointments for later this year, and quite frankly, I can’t say I know specifically where I am to go with all of this. I love bedside nursing. Plenty of people present at conferences, so I don’t presume to be all that extraordinary. I do know I’ve got vision; it’s just a big fuzzy right now. My sense is that God and faithfulness and time will bring the clarity.

I know that I love the public speaking, introvert and awkward maker of small talk that I am. I love processing different and deeper ways to think about nursing issues, and I love sharing these ideas with broader audiences. I hope it leads people to necessary conversations and better conclusions about how to deal with the issues we are facing.

I know that I cautiously guard hope inside that these speaking opportunities will grow my chances of eventually writing that book. I don’t even know yet exactly what it will be about, but I’ve just got a feeling that all of this work can eventually shape and fill the content of a book. One day, God willing.

I know that this isn’t about me. Not to say that I haven’t wrestled with ego issues, because of course, I have. But this would not be meaningful work if it only lifted me up and no one else. The power of medical technology is at an all-time high, yet moral distress is bringing nurses and other healthcare professionals to all-time lows. Patient and family needs are great, but staffing shortages at times feel greater. Yet I still believe in the heart of nursing; I believe it is not a past ideal that we are resigned to sadly shrug our shoulders at and say, “I used to have that heart.” I believe it is a heart that we as a whole people are charged with fiercely preserving in the face of staffing issues, unjust power dynamics, heartache, moral dilemmas, misunderstanding and lack of appreciation. To all of these things, I say – don’t you dare take our heart away from us. Our patients are worth too much. We and the work we do are worth too much. This is the heart I want to share with the public. This is the heart I want to keep alive.

FAQ about my TEDx Talk journey

It’s been lamentably quiet here in my blogging world, as all my energy to articulate clear thoughts has been poured into preparing for what is arguably one of the biggest events of my life – giving a TEDx Talk. It is 11 days away and it still feels incredibly unreal, despite the fact that I have been immersed in preparation ever since I got that incredible “Congratulations!” email in late June.

The writer in me wants to compose a smoother reflection on the experience thus far, but efficiency and quite honestly, exhaustion, drive me to share some thoughts via the “FAQ” format for now.

How did you even get the opportunity to do a TEDx Talk?

Those who know me and who have been following my journey awhile know that I’ve had a growing passion to build – and be – a voice for nurses, to begin and develop conversations about the internal things nurses experience as we care for people all along the spectrum of health and illness, hope and despair, deep love and profound loss. One day, I posted on Facebook about how appalled I was at the lack of books and video resources that hit on these topics in a more honest, gritty, deeper way. Somewhere in that Facebook conversation, I said I would love to do a TED Talk about nursing. A friend saw the comment and connected me to her friend who just happened to be the Director at TEDxPasadenaWomen as they just happened to be looking for applications for TEDx speakers. It was May 28, three days before the deadline and my parents were over to help with my kids, so I jumped on my “free time” and threw together an application, including a one-minute selfie video of me talking about my Big Idea. I submitted the application and held my breath for a month, playing all kinds of mind games with myself. I swung between “You’ll be relieved if they say no! Less stress and less work in your already full life”, and “You really, really, REALLY want to do this!!!”

It was a Saturday at work when I fully did NOT expect to hear back since it was a weekend. I checked my email and my jaw dropped as I saw the word “Congratulations!” from the TEDx Director. I was literally shaking, and quite honestly for a good five minutes, I thought to myself, “I can still say no! … Who am I kidding, I can’t say no!” And so, the incredible journey began.

How has the process been to prepare a TEDx Talk?

The writer in me loves to find words for deep thoughts and issues, so that passion translated over into finding words for a Talk. However, it is an altogether different process to write out a text that you will be speaking, as naturally and conversation-style as possible, rather than putting on paper for people to read. I had to learn to write for speaking, which required a lot of reading out loud, and video-taping myself, to get a sense of what works with speech versus written text.

I also had to learn how to talk about nursing for an entirely different audience. Up until now, my main audience really has been nurses, though many non-medical friends follow and seem to understand and appreciate my blogs about my nursing experiences and reflections. But for the first time, I had to think about how to concisely talk about a very big topic to a very broad audience (aka anyone and everyone!).

This leads me to the next challenge I encountered, which was probably the most arduous of all. I had to learn how to shift my mentality (and all my training, really) about speaking on a topic the way I would present a lecture to a class or at a conference – talking about one topic but with 1.) usually at least 30-45 minutes; and 2.) the liberty to address one general topic but touching on multi-faceted ideas. I had to go from this traditional style of public speaking, to the most razor-focused (and thus intense, and most agonizingly thought-through) 8-9 minute Talk on literally one idea, not one topic with multi-faceted ideas. At one point in my process, I had to essentially revamp my entire Talk, which was terribly painful at the time, but after working through it, so much better because it is truly so much more clear.

How do you feel about this kind of public speaking?

I actually love public speaking, which is funny because in person, I tend to be a rather quiet, somewhat shy person who is very uncomfortable with much attention. But I love the ability to impart thoughts – and hopefully some wisdom and inspiration – to a crowd of people. Something about it is exhilarating and life-giving to me.

I do have to memorize the Talk, which actually hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be. This really does help me feel like I will be speaking to the live audience, and the camera, from my core, which is an entirely different feeling than presenting a lecture from notes. It’s an indescribable connection to seek both with my own self, and with others.

What other things have stood out to you about the experience?

I have been fascinated with how the TED/TEDx experience truly seeks to draw out the authentic person behind the speaker. Of course, they want the “big idea,” but they also want it to come from the speaker’s own voice, the speaker’s own style of dress (What?? I can wear jeans to this instead of a business-style dress??), and all things that reflect who the speaker truly is.

I have also been challenged to work through how I handle a whole new level of “fame,” for lack of better words (because honestly, I don’t feel famous!) beyond what work I’ve already done for the American Journal of Nursing. How much attention do I take away from my sweet family to pursue this kind of dream experience? How much do I let it get to my head? How do I fare under the stress and pressure? I’ve written a separate reflection about my spiritual life in this whole TEDx Talk experience here; but for now, suffice to say, I have deeply appreciated the immeasurable support and grace that my husband, kids and parents have shown me as I have at times really struggled to navigate this new level of experience.

The Talk is 11 days away! How are you feeling?

I actually feel good! Nervous and excited of course, but I feel that the Talk is really engrained in me, and my test run with a smaller audience a couple days ago went very well. As I received positive feedback and very helpful fine-tuning tips from my friends and some of the TEDx team, I really just sat in awe of the fact that this was all coming together. I really just felt a sense of God’s generous purpose over this, and felt amazed that He helped bring this together at what has felt at times to be the worst time to be trying to do such a big project (I’m a working mother with two very young children! There is nothing about my life that feels focused enough to generate this Talk but somehow it happened. It has been the sheer grace of God.) It feels so cliché to say, but I truly just feel that I have been called to this, and because of that, God has made the way.

If I can’t attend, how can I see the Talk?

It will be live-streamed that day, and will be up on YouTube later. I will be sure to come back here and post links!

Thank you for your interest and support! 11 days and counting!

On the Verge of a Dream

It’s such a curious place to find myself in, on the verge of a dream.

I’ve seen this gap in terms of available resources to help nurses deal with the internal struggles triggered by what we deal with in our profession. While I appreciate the current journals, books and videos that tell some of the story of what nurses do, I also continue to long for something a bit different, a bit deeper. I was appalled by the sheer lack of TED or TEDx Talks on nursing. There are a good handful of medicine-related talks, but really only a limited few on nursing or nursing-related topics. With all that we see, experience, and grapple with, I simply cannot understand why nurses have not sought out or created more of a voice for who we are, what we do, what we struggle with, what we need. I’ve wanted a voice to exist. I’ve wanted to have a voice in that collective.

And now, I do. I’ve been granted a couple of opportunities to contribute to Off the Charts, the blog for the American Journal of Nursing, and this has been amazing to be a part of the conversation with a broader audience of nurses. And then I recently got accepted as a TEDx Talk speaker for TEDx Pasadena Women! I still can hardly believe it. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. There can be fear and burden with blessing. Who knew.

The writing feels a bit easier to work with. I remain relatively anonymous, and I have a bit more space and time to create the piece I want. Having a wonderful editing experience is extremely helpful too. Somehow, it feels safer.

The TEDx Talk really kicks it up a notch. The TEDx team prepares you really well with fantastic coaching and guidance over three months. But public speaking in and of itself is just an intense experience, and this platform for public speaking feels crazy. To have to pull it off in front of a live audience on a rather big stage, and then to know that the video will be put out there for anyone and everyone to see (and scrutinize)…it’s just really hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m actually going to have this as a part of my story.

I have no idea where this is going to go. It could go terribly, it could be mediocre and fizzle out with little “fanfare,” or it could launch into something even more. Even in being received well overall, there will be plenty of critics, I’m sure, and that’s something I’ll need to be prepared for. Am I ready to take on the Internet trolls?

I suppose it’s true when people say that this is kind of a big deal. Not everyone gets a chance to be on the TEDx Talk stage and speak about something they feel really passionately about! And yet I think it’s important to actively fight to maintain perspective. I want to enjoy it for all the amazing blessing it is, and glory in the Lord for His grace and generosity to me. Yet big picture, I remain a small fish in a big pond, just doing my part. I can already feel all the lure of supposed success, the lie that says “If you invest in all of this potential success, then you will be Someone. Not just the part-time bedside nurse otherwise cloistered at home picking up toys and changing diapers.” I’ve got two littles at home who don’t understand TEDx or journal publication – they only understand love and humility and presence from their Mama. I’ve got to keep asking, what matters more at the end of each day? The world can promise fame and fulfillment and then it can turn against you on a dime, find something irrelevant to criticize you about, say you’ve grown out of date and then you’ve gone from Someone to No One. Lasting fulfillment only comes from resting secure that I’m already Christ’s Beloved, already called for the greatest purpose of knowing Him, called to love the most important people He’s put right under my roof. All the rest, all this growing ‘success,’ it’s given as a gift for me to enjoy and share, and what God chooses to do with it, that’s up to Him. My core purpose remains.

you can find me here

In true introvert fashion, I needed to jot my thoughts down before a phone interview of sorts so that I wouldn’t stumble so much over on-the-spot questions. A contributor to the newsletter for the hospital where I work had emailed me, asking if she could talk with me about how my interests in writing and photography help me relieve my work-related stress. Here are my thoughts, on writing at least. They echo some sentiments I’ve expressed in previous posts.

As an introvert who loves quiet days more than gold, I find it somewhat ironic that I work in a profession that involves constant and often competing interactions with people for 12 straight hours in my normal work day. This, in a typically high-energy, noisy, stressful environment.  I am listening to everyone else’s story, processing all that I am taking in, and making decisions based on all of the external feedback I am receiving. My mind is in overload, but it’s about everything and everyone else. I know I’m stressed but I also know there are many, many more layers to that stress than simply being very, very busy.

Writing is the space I have to untangle my own thoughts, before they entangle me to the point where I start acting out without knowing what’s going on inside me. It is the space for me to identify my emotions: Anger at the injustice of child abuse? Anger at the person who spoke too sharply to me, when I was only trying to do my job? Frustrations with an imperfect healthcare system? Sadness for a child? Confusion about the reasons for such suffering?  It is the space for my own voice, after I have left the hospital, and all the other voices and alarms and sounds from my work slowly dissipate. Writing is also the place for me to express the hard things I feel at work, the things people honestly don’t always want to hear about in an in-person conversation. Sometimes they’re too hard, too uncomfortable, and frankly too morbid to verbally share or hear. But in writing, I can give voice to these things in a way that won’t bring a conversation to an awkward silence, thus freeing my reader of the pressure to find the “right” response, and freeing myself of some of the sadness I feel that I should probably change the subject now…even though the subject affects and shapes so much of me. For one who is constantly meshed with others’ stories, and often highly complicated ones at that, writing is the place where I can pull myself out and tell my own story, recollecting, growing and protecting my sense of self. You and I, we can find me here.

predicting my disappearance

I’m a stress shopper, but perhaps not the kind that you imagine. I don’t usually feel compelled to go shopping for clothes. The crowds, the handing over of a credit card, and the pressure of trying to figure out how to look remotely stylish make the very thought of clothes shopping stressful for this frugal, plain Jane introvert. What I do feel compelled to shop for is books. In times of stress, you’ll find me on Amazon, reading reviews, teasing myself with snippets of writing samples, reveling in the deals.  My blood pressure comes down just from browsing books. I could tell you right now, if I ever moved to Portland and went missing, chances are you’d eventually find me tucked away in some corner of Powell’s City of Books. (For that reason alone, it’s probably a good thing I don’t live in Portland.) I love getting immersed in a story, learning about a new culture, gaining perspectives different from my own, all from the quiet comfort of my own sofa.

Maybe it’s because it’s an easy way to get my mind off of my own worries, with the freedom to either pull away from or push through the characters’ drama at my own leisure. Maybe it’s the ability a well-written story has to focus my overstretched mind on just one thing for a prolonged period of time. Maybe it’s because the power of story always helps me appreciate the role that trials play in my own life, when I see them working out their purposes in another’s. Maybe it’s the comfort that comes with identifying with characters working out their fears, complex relationships, joys, hopes and identities – the comfort of knowing that this is the human experience, that I’m not alone in this. Maybe it’s the catharsis that comes with letting someone else put to words what I have been trying to sort out in my head up until this point. Maybe it’s the sense of personal growth that I gain without always having to try. so. hard.

Maybe it’s all of this, wrapped up in the sheer beauty of a really well-told story.

I’m always looking for recommendations, so if any of you have some to offer, I welcome them.

I’m (not) sexy and I (don’t) know it

I heard the word used in a couple of different contexts today and I couldn’t help but feel curious. Sexy. What is that? Someone’s original topic for a book proposal was initially rejected because it wasn’t sexy enough. And of course, the more common context. Girl, you are sexy. (Please note, not said to me. I’m not sexy and I know it.)

It’s a curious word. Let’s take the context of getting a book published, in this case, non-fiction. The topic has got to be beyond interesting. It’s got to be beyond important. Even really important. It’s got to be sexy. I’m disappointed to say that the first comparison that comes to mind is Super Bowl Sunday when everyone is scrutinizing the commercials to pick out the most memorable. Meh, we’ve seen the typical Toyota commercial showing a spotless new car gliding along the shoreline, a happy family laughing, a dog grinning in the back, and 0% interest for 12 months. But it’s the commercial where the car door opens and out emerges the very long-legged woman in very high heels in a very tight dress that causes even the most ambivalent football fan to stop mid-conversation to gaze at the screen for a few extra moments. This, I suppose, is the desired effect with book topics among publishers. Sexy. The bookworm will be perusing the bookstand in the “newly released” section. We really do judge a book by its cover. Some, you look at and you just don’t take seriously at all, ever. But there are those books, with just the right play on words in the title and subtitle, just the right delivery of visual interest in the cover design, that lure you. They make promises and you want to know if they will deliver. They draw you in on a deeply personal level, in ways that you have not been drawn in, or drawn out, before. Sexy.

And of course there’s the more common context for the word sexy: people, usually female.  I am not sexy. I don’t know how to be. I’m way too practical for high heels and I shave on the minimal end of minimal. I look at magazine covers and they confuse me. Who makes those kinds of facial expressions in everyday life? The ‘come hither’ look. Am I supposed to learn how to make that kind of facial expression with my husband? I think he’d just laugh. I’d laugh. Who are you and what have you done with my wife? I like that he thinks I’m pretty when I wear a nice dress, do my hair a bit, add a touch of blush and light perfume. But I like that he loves me when my matted hair tells him that I’ve clearly slept on my left side all night, when I don’t feel like getting myself out of my pajamas and bedhead until 10AM on my days off, and when I’ve come in from an evening run with hair pinned back, my face red and dripping with sweat. Truth be told, I like being demure. A lot. I love that my husband wanted to get to know me for demure me. I know he’s not immune to visual temptation but I love that he makes a concerted effort to turn his eyes away when those commercials come on, looks at me and tells me I am beautiful. Who knows, maybe I am sexy. If being demure means that I can draw my husband in on a deeply personal level, like a sexy book where all you want is to spend time getting to know more of what is going on in this amazing life that a well-written book takes on, then maybe I do want to be sexy, maybe I am sexy and I just don’t know it.

God’s Blessing to the Impure of Heart

It is the tail end of Nurses’ Week around the country, and what a wonderful week it has been. All around the country, all throughout the hospital, and throughout our unit, people have recognized that,

“To do what nobody else will do, a way that nobody else can do, in spite of all we go through; is to be a nurse.” – Rawsi Williams

Our hospital holds an essay contest for Nurses’ Week each year, and this year’s topic was, “Describe a Moment When You Knew You Made a Difference.” Friends encouraged me to submit an entry, and I was excited to do so. People tell me I am a good writer. They tell me they are encouraged through it. The honest truth is, I find writing to be wonderfully cathartic, and so I write, in some (good) ways, for me. The honest truth is also that my ego revels in the fact that others enjoy – and give some praise to – my writing. And so I write, in some (not so good) ways, for me. It’s true, we ought to acknowledge the talents with which God has indeed graciously gifted us. But oh how our egos love to rise, and so quickly, so easily.

One physician stood at the front of the conference room and read the third-place essay. It was wonderful, and it was not mine. Another physician read the second-place essay. It was even more wonderful, and it was not mine. My heart pounded, and my ego stood on its toes, trying to peer over the sheet of paper that the final physician held in his hands, to confirm if that first-place essay was the one with my name on it. He read the first two lines, and it took that many seconds for me to realize, I hadn’t won. I hadn’t even placed.

The first-place story was remarkably special, incredibly powerful. Objectively speaking, I knew it merited its place, as the essay spoke to the beauty of nursing at its absolute finest. Everyone around me was moved to tears, but my eyes were shamefully dry. I was honestly trying to be present with the story as it unfolded in the doctor’s reading. But I was expending too much energy internally mourning my personal loss, to have enough emotional reserve to give to this beautifully moving story. It took an embarrassing amount of time and effort for me to get over myself.

The duplicity of my motivation for entering this essay contest was brought into a glaring light. Here was a room full of people, an entire nation spending an entire week, celebrating the collective story that nurses have to tell about what God-given compassion looks like through their hearts and hands. I, however, missed out a bit on the honor and joy of this greater story, because my compassion was focused on me, myself, and I for just a little too long that day.

Encouragement from other people can of course be good to a certain degree. Humble pie from time to time, however, is necessary and best, as it brings impurity of heart to the surface and burns it away. This refining is God’s blessing, God’s gift, to help my impure heart experience a deeper, purer joy in the bigger picture of what He is doing every day through nurses everywhere.

a search for a sort of life

I recently started reading a most curious book titled Working by Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer-prize winning author. Written in the 70s, the book is a collection of interviews with an unpredictable variety of people about the work that they do, day in and day out. Interviewees include a heavy equipment operator, airline reservationist, hooker, sanitation truck driver, film critic, cabdriver, bar pianist, gas meter reader, piano tuner, hospital aide, gravedigger, and many more. I’m only a few interviews into the book, but already my perspective is changing, widening. That’s one of the things I love about reading, the way certain authors are able to cultivate affection and deep concern in your heart towards the characters they present. Some fantastic reads this past year that have had this effect on me have included Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.

Anyhow, I digress.  This book by Terkel is brilliant, and it’s gotten me thinking about the work we do. It’s a curious thing, how work can be such a huge part of our lives and yet be so far sometimes from who we really are. I love my job as a nurse, I feel very much called to it and shaped for it, and yet I have plenty of insecurities in my capabilities. Even after very wonderfully rewarding days at work, I am always happy to be going home because… well, home is home. Despite my very personal sense of calling and belonging in this profession, I also experience these other moments when it’s so clear that while this is my work, it is not me. After all, things like writing or photography express and bring out parts of me that most people at work will probably never see. And yet somehow I think that if I were to ever become a professional writer or a professional photographer, my feelings about these activities would change once those became my work. It’s funny how that is.

A lot of times, when I see custodians in the hospital or in hotels where I happen to be vacationing, I wonder a lot about how they feel about their work. I don’t mean to be patronizing. But I think it is safe to say that the majority of people who work in these positions would most likely prefer to have other occupations, if they had the opportunity. I remember attending a conference at a lovely hotel in Chicago many years ago, and I saw an older custodian in a hallway as I was headed to the ladies’ room. It had obviously been a very long, busy day for him. I stopped and said to him, “Thank you so much for serving us.” I didn’t say it because I’m so noble or virtuous, I just really meant it. He had done a lot for us and I just felt like I ought to thank him. I remember the startled but most sincerely grateful expression on his face. “Oh…!  …You’re welcome.” A number of people in Terkel’s book talk about how they feel like robots, animals, anything but human in their work. Less than human.  And so Terkel says,

It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.

How do you feel about your work? Do you find it life-giving, or the opposite? Or both?

courage is a curious thing

Sometimes, we throw around phrases without really knowing what we are asking of ourselves or of others. Take courage. I have had a number of friends use that word courage with me in recent conversations.

It takes courage to live in community.

It took a lot of courage for those parents to withdraw life support.

That patient was so courageous in his years of battling his disease.

Courage is a curious thing. It is not quite like strength. It is more pliable, more dynamic. Strength takes on a more solid form regardless of its context. Courage, however, can take on new skin as its circumstances change. For many of our patients and their families, they take courage for weeks, months and years as they fight for the patient’s life. They take courage to undergo surgeries, to tolerate the debilitating side effects of strong medications, to endure agonizing hours of rehabilitation. But for many of these same patients, there sadly comes a point when they are challenged with what can feel like a complete undoing of courage itself. But in reality, it is simply a transformation. Going from the courage to live, to the even greater courage to die. Some families in our unit struggle deeply with this, and become stuck. Part of the reason, I believe, is because there is a moral aspect attached to courage, particularly in the context of a pediatric intensive care unit. (Or at the very least, there is a social aspect, because typically in situations where courage is required, other people are affected.) Purported courage without wisdom can easily slip into recklessness. Courage with wisdom does not come easily.

In another context, my artist friend Chia has a tagline on his business card, “Creativity takes courage.” I never fully understood this until I started becoming more aware of my fears. In my creative life, I began to notice that moment of hesitation, that quiver in my stomach whenever I finished a piece of writing, finished processing a set of photographs, or sat on the verge of playing an improvised melody. In the lingering seconds before opening these up to the world, I would feel those surprising yet familiar trembles in my gut. I began to realize there is a certain vulnerability that you open yourself up to when you share expressions of yourself to others. You begin a certain kind of dialogue with others when you begin to share your creative self, and in that dialogue, the door to criticism opens, whether you ever actually hear that criticism or not. But so too opens the door to exhilaration, encouragement, self-discovery, and growth.

It takes courage to live in community. This is not to say that we all need to become socialites, as Adam McHugh articulated so wonderfully in his book, which is gospel to introverts like myself. But introverted or extroverted, living in community requires creativity because we must learn how to define, accept and express our unique selves in the context of relationship. And creativity takes courage.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” True courage can feel, at times, terrifyingly elusive. But when it is found, its beauty and value are beyond measure.