Love Letter to My Superstar Friends

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Dear Paul & Joanne*,

I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you both for taking the time to meet me last week.  You came out in the pouring rain, not for a lighthearted night of drinks and karaoke, but to talk charged politics with your tortured, melancholic, liberal friend.  I hope it did not feel too burdensome, and that you would do it again.

It was quite the emotional evening for me, unsettling, sometimes uncomfortable, and also dominated by love.  Joanne, we have known each other about 15 years, and I know you are not a fan of politics in general.  Paul, I know you mostly through your witty holiday cards, and your occasional Facebook posts that often touch on politics.  You lean right, it seems, about as much as I lean left.  You gently called me out when I shared a Trump supporter-shaming video, reminding me to hold myself to a higher standard of discourse on all platforms.  That is why I sought you out.  When you engage, you exemplify the attitude toward political discourse that I aspire to.

I described to Joanne over the phone how distraught I had been since November, something akin to “watching the fabric of my generation’s social progress torn to shreds by a maniacally fomenting, double-machete-wielding narcissist.”  You seemed genuinely surprised and curious—why did this election have such a profoundly tormenting effect on me?  What made millions of people pour into the streets around the world in protest?  I was incredulous at your incredulity, and yet I felt a mutual, loving acceptance between friends who only want each other to be happy and feel secure.

At dinner, I could tell that you both cared acutely about my distress, and wanted to help alleviate it.  You reassured me that the worst case scenarios are highly unlikely to actually happen.  You reminded me that hyperventilation and arm flapping are not productive energy expenditures.  You gently encouraged me about the long, jagged, often meandering, and also inevitable path of social progress, and the importance of taking the long view.

I admit that I felt a little defensive at times, as if anything I said about the origins of my distress would be met with, “You’re overreacting,” and “You’re worried about nothing, please…”  We later agreed that it is never helpful to invalidate someone’s emotional response to a stressor, regardless of whether or not we can relate.  Paul, you are so well-read and convicted about your opinions.  I did not see a point in arguing, as you did not seem interested in debate, and I left feeling disappointed that I had not presented a stronger defense of my liberal ideals.  The whole exchange felt lopsided in favor of your position.  But I did learn from your point of view, which was one of my primary objectives.

Most importantly, our conversation revived my mindfulness practice.  You’re right—energy spent catastrophizing about a hell-on-earth future is energy wasted.  As Michael J. Fox says (I paraphrase), “Don’t spend your time worrying, because if what you’re worried about actually happens, now you’ve lived it twice.”  My energy is better spent in the present, attending to what is, rather than what I fear might be.  And I feel justified in my shock and dismay at what is.  In my opinion, Donald Trump has defiled the presidency and brought our politics to a new moral low that I could never have predicted.  I don’t need to ‘go apeshit’ over the future, as there is plenty of wreckage to confront right now, not the least of which is our collective refusal to engage one another in civil discourse.  I can center, ground, and focus, breathe deeply and engage, one step, one person, or one loving couple, at a time.

Last week Dan Rather wrote my heart on his Facebook page:

The threats, the lies, the willful disregard for the rule of law should be limited to the world of Hollywood caricature. To see this played out each night on the news, to read about ramblings and inconsistencies in justifications for actions that should never have been taken, is to see a moment of great peril for our nation.

I remain, however, an optimist. I see the swellings of civic engagement and action. I hear the voices of those who demand that this subversion of our national ideals shall not stand. I have covered social movements of the past, and never have seen one where so much power and numbers lie on the side of the opposition. This is a clash for the values of our nation. Our destiny is in our hands.

Our nation’s patchy, irregular social fabric may be strained to its limits today, and even torn in some places.  But the threat of real disintegration has brought forth multitudes of weavers and quilters to repair and protect its integrity.  I can acknowledge this ‘collateral beauty’ and contribute my part, through conversations like ours, to help mend the tapestry, and bend that moral arc of the universe more toward justice.

Thank you, my dear friends, for helping me train for this marathon.  You hold me up and make me stronger.  I hope I do the same for you.

Sincerely and with love,

Cathy

 

*Not their real names

Inspired

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…by a friend of a friend.

It’s okay to lament the darkness. Grief is normal and healthy.

But then go get a candle and light it.  Then go about lighting other people’s candles with yours.

The best part is, the light just multiplies. Your light shines no less brightly for giving some away.

And pretty soon darkness gives way to all of our light.

Peace and hope, friends. 

On Thanksgiving–Meh

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 24

To Patients Who Feel Lukewarm About Thanksgiving:

I’m with ya.

Not that I have anything against Thanksgiving…  I just have difficulty pouring forth a great gush of gratitude every fourth Thursday of November for a national holiday.  I thought this week it was just because of the tensions of the year, but looking back, I’ve never really loved this day.  I feel sheepish to write it, like people will think less of me.  Then again, something tells me I might not be the only one?

Yesterday I shared the most eloquent treatise on gratitude I have ever read, and I believe every word.  I try to live the premise every day—to pay attention and feel gratitude at the deepest cosmic level, connected to everything in the universe.  I marvel every day at all that I have, all that I am privileged to witness and do—to live this life, so full of learning and connection.  Today I’m supposed to summon and articulate all that moves me to thankfulness…  Why do I resist?

I imagine many would read this and think, “Wow, she is so ungrateful,” or maybe un-American?  I think most people who know me would disagree.  And those who know and love me best would hold the space with me to explore the curiosity of it all, without judging me for it or trying to ‘fix’ it.  And I’m ever so grateful for them, because I’m not sure it’s something that needs to be ‘fixed.’

I think it’s okay to feel not particularly grateful today, no more than any other day.  I also think it’s okay to feel especially grateful on this day, significantly more than any other day.  What’s not okay—what I see causing so many people to suffer—is when we shame others for thinking and feeling differently from us.  We physicians do this more than we realize, I think.  When patients don’t seem to take blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, or flu as seriously as we do, we can get very judgmental.  When they have different ideas about what will make them better (natural supplements, unusual diets, acupuncture, shamanic journeying, homeopathy), we can become positively hostile.  This is rarely helpful.

So if you, like me, are not particularly into Thanksgiving, and/or if you don’t subscribe to all conventional wisdom around certain things medical, I will try to withhold judgment.  I am indeed grateful for the chance to gather and enjoy one another’s company this week.  I don’t advertise my apathy for the holiday, as that would diminish others’ joy—and that would be antithetical to my core values.  I also appreciate the freedom to celebrate modestly rather than exuberantly.  I respect your right to choose therapies according to your values and beliefs, as long as your choices do not harm others.

I’ll continue to explore my relative indifference toward Thanksgiving.  Thank you for not trying to make me feel bad for it.

On Experiencing and Expressing Gratitude

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 23

To Patients Seeking Words for Gratitude:

I found them!

As we head to gatherings tomorrow and seek words to honor and express the occasion, I’m particularly grateful today to see the post below by David Whyte.  Where, you ask?  Why on Facebook, of course!  Back tomorrow with my own original words.  Until then, peace and gratitude to you all!

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GRATITUDE

is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a-priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing. Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the color blue, the green of the fields, the freshness of a cold wind, or the tawny hue of a winter landscape.

To see the full miraculous essentiality of the color blue is to be grateful with no necessity for a word of thanks. To see fully, the beauty of a daughter’s face across the table, of a son’s outline against the mountains, is to be fully grateful without having to seek a God to thank him. To sit among friends and strangers, hearing many voices, strange opinions; to intuit even stranger inner lives beneath calm surface lives, to inhabit many worlds at once in this world, to be a someone amongst all other someones, and therefore to make a conversation without saying a word, is to deepen our sense of presence and therefore our natural sense of thankfulness that everything happens both with us and without us, that we are participants and witness all at once.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s strange world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege.

Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets and fully beholds all other presences. Being unappreciative, feeling distant, might mean we are simply not paying attention.

© 2015 David Whyte
from ‘GRATITUDE’
In CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
© David Whyte and Many Rivers Press 2015

A Little More Inspiration

img_4550NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 18

To Patients Seeking Inspiration:

May you find it all around you!

Today I want to share Donna’s and my 3 Question Journal shares from yesterday.  To learn more about the practice, check out yesterday’s post.  Please join us!  See our ongoing thread on Day 9.

Today I also reference Donna’s post from yesterday, as its raw vulnerability inspires me, too. 🙂

Donna:

Hi, Cathy, I cheated a bit. I prefer to think of it as creative accounting.
SURPRISED to discover how much easier it is to stay focused on the lectures in my audio course if I color while I’m listening. If I try to listen while idle, I drift away. Hmmm, this is an area where multi-tasking is actually beneficial.
I’m making this a two-fer:
INSPIRED and TOUCHED by many of the speeches at the National Book Awards: Rep. John Lewis tearfully relating how as a teenager he was refused a library card because he was black, and now he was on stage accepting a National Book Award. Colson Whitehead’s “formula” for feeling better in these worrisome times: “Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.” And poet Toi Derricotte’s declaration that “joy is an act of resistance.”
Hope you’ve had a great day today, Cathy, and will have a better one tomorrow. See you then!

Me:

Hi Donna! I heard parts of those speeches on NPR this morning, too! And yes, very moving.
I just arrived in Champaign for the American College of Physicians Illinois Chapter Meeting. Tomorrow morning I will give a fifteen minute summary of highlights from the international physician health conference.
I’m surprised at how not nervous I am about this talk. But then again, maybe there is no need. I know this stuff, I love it. There are no facts to memorize, only passion and inspiration to share!
I am moved by my conversation with my friend in the car. We talked for 121 miles and then some. We realized that we have been each other’s mentors in different ways these last few years. I also realized that knowing her has made me more confident, more brave, and more *my best self*.  Truly moving.
I’m inspired by the message I’m about to deliver tomorrow. The profession struggles to sustain its calling. Our circumstances undermine the meaning in our work, obscure our calling. And yet, like you posted today, the well will still fill, from the deep. Oh my gosh!! I think I will quote you tomorrow!! OMG it’s PERFECT!! YOU inspire me, Donna!!!
It’s gonna be great. Because I have so much inspiration all around me.
This was a pretty great day, Donna.
I hope your well fills in a little and a lot more every day. Let’s look for that 3:1 ratio, and continue our journal. It’s really helping me! …And staying off of Facebook is also paying off–in time, energy, and mood. Hugs to you, friend!!

On Lifelong Learning

dsc_0522NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 13

To My Patients Who Continue to Teach Me:

I’m a better doctor, a better parent, and a better person for knowing you.  Thank you.

To the middle-aged father of five who told me about my tween son, “Just be present.  Wait for it.  He won’t use many words.  When he starts talking, put down whatever you’re doing and listen.”

To the gifted daycare director and mom of two who advised me to ‘come alongside’ the kids rather than ‘coming at’ them.

To the auntie who reassured me that all will be well if I can hang on and ride the tides of marriage.

To the psychologist who taught me mindfulness in the exam room.

To the creative who showed me that left- and right-brainers overlap more than I realized.

To every patient who loves, hates, adores, vexes, uplifts, frustrates, admires and dismisses me, you each teach me a unique and valuable lesson.

Medicine is not about knowing.  It’s about listening, watching, being, waiting, doing, and holding.

Thank you all for the privilege to learn.

May I serve you well in return.

 

 

On Community

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 10

To Patients Who Feel Alone Sometimes:

Who holds you up?

Day 2 post-election, it is still positively surreal.  Monday night I saw Facebook friends post passionate, emotional, sometimes desperate pleas, urging their friends to vote one way or another.  I also saw friends acknowledging the long, strange trip, looking forward to the next chapter, expressing both relief and trepidation.  A cloud of separation hung over my heart as I read some of my friends’ words then. 

Something inside urged me to contact a high school classmate.  We did not know each other well back then, and we didn’t always like each other.  But I always felt a mutual respect.  She does not post about politics; I do…a lot.  I know we differ in many of our positions and views.  I also know her to be thoughtful, kind, ethical, and just.  I know she has a lot going on in her life right now.  Our Facebook friendship has grown the past few years, and more and more I feel a cosmic connection.  I am meant to know this person again and better, in this later phase of life.  So I messaged her privately, just to tell her I was thinking of her.  I sent hope, and wishes that we could sit down over tea, somewhere cozy, and share our lives—slowly, thoughtfully, kindly, lovingly.  Turns out my little message helped hold her up yesterday.  On this day of anxiety and tension, hope and uncertainty, this long-distance connection gives me strength and peace.  It reminds me of a recent article by the Dalai Lama on our need to be needed.

I’ve said and written so often that I’m so grateful for my tribe(s), the communities that surround and support me in everything I do.  When I see patients, I make it a point to ask about emotional support networks. They don’t have to be vast or deep.  They just need to be strong and reliable.  No matter what our station, our illness, our cultural origin, or our political leaning, we live longer, healthier, happier, and easier when we connect with others.  It can be many, often, and deep.  It can be few and intermittent.  It just has to be meaningful and enough.

Lastly, supportive relationships function best when they are also reciprocal.  I don’t mean quid pro quo.  I mean mutual, shared, communal, uncalculated support.  I ask patients, “Do you have enough people you know you can turn to, people who will be there for you, in times of personal crisis?”  I want so much for you to answer without hesitation, “Yes, definitely, no question.”  Then I can relax about your health.  You (all) got this.