200th Post: The Best of Healing Through Connection

Harper Columbine 5-31-14

Happy New Year, my friends!  May 2018 bring us all health, joy, connection, and learning!  And may we all look back one year from now feeling more empathy and compassion, and enjoying better relationships than ever before.

If you are new to this blog, welcome!  I hope you find something that resonates.  If you are an old friend, thank you for your support, feedback, and encouragement the last 32 months.  As I reread the last 199 posts this past week, my favorite parts were the thoughtful and enlightening comments.  I never imagined I could make friends writing a blog and yet here we are, connected, engaged, and holding one another up.

What have you discovered about your own writing when you go back and read?  Turns out I have a pretty consistent theme—it’s all about relationships.  Relationships require awareness, insight, active engagement, negotiation, and adaptation.  This is no less true in our relationships with ourselves than with others.  I have divided my favorite posts below into three categories: Health & Self-Care, Physician-Patient Relationship, and Relationships and Communication in general.  Though I have written pieces on politics and healthcare, I realize that these are critical arenas in which to explore relationships, and not my primary areas of focus in and of themselves.

2018 brings big new projects and responsibilities, yay!  So of course there will be big new challenges, also yay!  Looking ahead, I commit to my self-care practices with renewed motivation:

  1. Get to bed by 11:30 every night—Coach Christine has permission to call me out if I’m caught Facebooking past this time.
  2. Maintain 4+ workouts per week. An aging body needs regular vigorous movement!
  3. Keep up with therapy and resume regular coaching calls—reflect internally and project my best self outwardly.
  4. Maximize intake of stems, stalks, leaves, and fruit; minimize refined sugars.
  5. Nurture my ties to my tribes. They hold me up so I can do my best for those whom I lead.

The coming year will also require pulling back on certain things in order to maintain sanity.  While I refuse to renounce my Facebook use altogether, I have already decreased daily hours spent.  And though I still strive to maintain social/political awareness and activism, I will engage less with opposing voices on social media.  The costs, I have learned, far outweigh the benefits.  I would much rather take a politically oppositional friend out to lunch, or even fly to meet them, and have far more meaningful conversations in person.

For now, I plan also to scale back on the blog.  I’ll continue to write, of course, but likely more in the form of stream-of-consciousness journaling, brain-dumping, and snail mail letters to friends.  I expect that once in a while one of these activities will yield a post or two, and I hope to catch them by the tail and publish them before they escape the moment.  I leave here the list of my favorite posts to date.  Please feel free to dip in and out, leave new comments, and share links.  I suspect I will be drawn back to the page before long, as I already have a list of ideas for future posts.  But in case it’s longer than I anticipate, please know that I appreciate every view, every like, every comment, and every connection.

Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read.  And may you take something away that makes you glad you came.

Sincerely,

Cathy Cheng


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Health and Self-Care

The Sh*tpile  /May 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/05/01/the-shtpile/

Everybody has one.  We inherit large parts of it from our parents, whose parents passed theirs down, etc.  Life experiences add mass and odor as we grow up.  It sits squarely in the middle of the house of our existence.  For the most part, we simply live our lives around it, walking past every day, careful not to knock any pieces off.  The surface gets dry and crusty; we grow accustomed to the smell.

 

How Health Begets Health  /November 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/07/how-health-begets-health/

As the kids and I sat waiting to get their flu vaccines this morning, I heard someone blow their nose. It was that thick mucus blowing that feels, at the same time, both gross and gratifying. I took a deep breath through my unobstructed nostrils and looked happily at my uninfected children.

 

Setting Intensions for 2016  /January 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/01/01/setting-intentions-for-2016/

This year I realized my body’s inevitable march toward menopause, a stark and sudden awareness. It came to me sometime in the spring, and I felt a keen jolt of motivation to prepare.   After 13 years of practice, I recognize two characteristics of women who suffer the least through this dramatic hormonal transition.

 

So You Want to Lose Weight  /March 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/03/12/so-you-want-to-lose-weight-the-four-as-of-goal-setting/

We set weight loss goals all the time, all of us—physicians included. We choose a number on the scale—an outcome—that represents our better selves, however we see it.  I suggest today that behavior-oriented goals, rather than outcomes-oriented ones, lead to far greater and more meaningful success.  How much are we really in control of what we weigh, day to day?

 

Never and Now  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/17/atozchallenge-never-and-now/

And, there is another important practice to overcoming the Nevers: Mindfulness, the practice of the Now.  Never is about the future or the past.  Often it’s a shadowy, catastrophizing perspective of things.  But we cannot predict the future, despite our arrogant human certainty.  And we cannot live every day to come based solely on what has already happened or not happened.  Circumstances and attitudes change.  Landscapes change—at times literally, and in an instant.  We evolve, we learn, we grow.  How can we be so sure that Never is real?

 

Yes, And!  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/30/atozchallenge-yes-and/

The goal is to open our minds, allow possibilities, expand our boundaries, and encourage creativity. I can still see her smile, the gleaming light of engagement and anticipation in her eyes.  I also remember my own hesitation and self-consciousness.  What do you mean, pimple on my forehead?  Is it really about to burst?

 

On the Critical Importance of Self-Care  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/06/1638/

Technology and other advances have created a world of 24/7 hyper-stimulation, global comparisons of productivity and innovation, and immense pressures to be perfect, or at least appear so.  Men and women live under constant scrutiny and competition… I see, hear, and feel it from my patients every day—the anxiety, the uncertainty, the angst.  The suffering is real, if not totally tangible.

 

On the Second Arrow  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/11/on-the-second-arrow/

Eventually, breathing, we can let go the negativity, pull the arrow out.  Breathe.  When assailed by another first arrow, see the second arrow coming and sidestep.  Breathe.  Keep breathing.  Practice self-compassion and forgiveness.

 

On Readiness  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/16/on-readiness/

I confess I am guilty of impatience and judgment.  When I see your uncontrolled, lifestyle-related medical problems, and you resist behavior change, I feel frustrated.  I know you feel it, too.  But know that I don’t blame you. The point is: we don’t make changes until we are ready.

 

Walking the Talk  /July 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/07/09/walking-the-talk/

18 months ago I wrote about my plan for maximizing menopause preparedness.  As with so many missions, this one has experienced both successes and failures.

 

Just Do It My Butt  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/06/just-do-it-my-butt/

Medical systems which include dieticians, exercise physiologists, and health psychologists can deploy these team members to support patients in their health journeys.  But does your doctor’s office have this kind of set up?  Does your insurance pay for these services?

 

Citius, Altius, Fortius!  /November 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/09/citius-altius-fortius/

Every day I live in awe of the astounding miracle that is the human body. It is the quintessential integrated machine.   Almost every part serves a unique and essential purpose in normal daily function, and the parameters for such function are incredibly narrow.  But take something out, wound something else, or trash multiple systems at once, and the whole assembly adapts around the insults, automatically, without any action or awareness on our part.  The body’s compensatory mechanisms exemplify the resilience and tenacity of nature, no doubt about it.

 

Dance For Your Health  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/16/dance-for-your-health/

So basically, dancing activates key areas of the brain and body in an orchestrated fashion, igniting motion, joy, connection, exhilaration, sensory integration, creativity, passion, cardiovascular elasticity, and fun.  How could this not make us all younger?


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Physician-Patient Relationship

The Premise  /April 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/04/14/hello-world/

Patients and physicians have control over one thing above all else: our relationship with each other.  Relationships live and die by communication.  Barriers on the obstacle course of patient-physician communication loom large and formidable. Our system fails us over and again. And it falls to each of us, not the system, to find our way to connection and healing relationships.

 

What Are You Looking For?  /April 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/04/22/what-are-you-looking-for/

My mind’s eye saw hers widen with disappointment, then anger, her posture turn aggressive.  My inner conflict escalated quickly:  Sacrifice the rapport I had just established in the name of antibiotic stewardship, or give in to the misguided pleas of a wrung out fellow working mom, and contribute personally to the scourge of antibiotic overuse and resistance?

 

More Than Enough Love  /June 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/06/20/more-than-enough-love/

Like parenting, the path of medical practice is not paved with lollipops and ice cream.  It’s more like an uphill dirt road with pits and grooves, erratic weather, and hairpin turns that make you dizzy and nauseated.  It can also offer astoundingly beautiful scenery along the way—like parenting.

 

Help Me Help You  /July 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/07/10/help-me-help-you/

When you feel that disconnect, like I have left Best Me somewhere else and you’re not getting what you need, what will you do?  Will you yell and storm away? Smile to my face and then write a scathing, anonymous Yelp review? What would you do if I were your spouse, colleague, friend, or child? You and I are in a relationship, not unlike these.

 

Closing the Satisfaction Gap  /July 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/07/20/the-thorn-in-our-collective-side/

This patient gave Dr. K the best possible feedback: An objective observation about a behavior, her subjective interpretation of it, and its consequence for their relationship.  This is how we communicate evaluations to medical students on their performance in clinical rotations.  There is no reason why it should stop at the end of training; it’s just that the evaluators have changed.

 

The Burnout Crucible  /September 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/09/20/the-burnout-crucible/

Maybe it’s a moot point, whether it’s better to never burn out or to burn out and relight. We’re all here doing our best every day. Maybe it’s more important to just cut ourselves and one another a little slack sometimes, have compassion for aggressors while calling out their unjust behaviors, and offer everybody the benefit of the doubt, especially when we’re all stressed out.

 

What Makes You Think You Can Trust Me?  /February 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/02/01/what-makes-you-think-you-can-trust-me/

Trust is the cornerstone of any meaningful relationship. The patient-physician relationship is no exception. It takes time and presence to cultivate. These are big investments, and if we are willing to make them, the returns can literally save us.

 

 

I am Edna Mode  /February 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/02/20/i-am-edna-mode/

Clearly, Edna trained in the School of Tough Love.  Fortunately for you, I have also studied empathy, compassion, and motivational interviewing.  I can help you persist.  I have patience for your journey.  I can be your pillar of consistency.  Edna is nothing if not consistent!

 

Humbling and Honoring  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/09/humbling-and-honoring/

I get to choose when I am willing to donate my time and energy to the free clinic—everything I do there is on my own terms.  The patients there have no such choices.  If they want care, they have to show up—early—on the day the clinic is open, regardless of what else is going on in their lives.  There are no appointments, and almost no continuity with providers.  It’s a completely different world from where I make my living, on the Gold Coast of Chicago.

 

On Mutual Respect  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/05/on-mutual-respect/

To Patients Who Abuse Medical Staff: Let me be clear: That is not okay.

 

No Substitute for Time  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/03/no-substitute-for-time/

“More information about the value of a physician-patient encounter will always be found in the content of their communication than in what they ultimately do. The difference in… physicians’ behaviors will not be found in any database, electronic medical record, or machine-learning algorithm. I have yet to see data on the contextual information from a history of the present illness in any data set or quality improvement initiative.”

 

Dr. Jerkface In Context: Healing the physician-patient relationship  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/25/dr-jerkface-in-context-healing-the-patient-physician-relationship/

Do patients care about doctors’ suffering?  If they knew how the system harms physicians, would they have compassion for us?  What about if they knew how physician burnout and dissatisfaction directly affects their quality of care, all of it negatively?  What would move patients to stand up with and for doctors?  This is my goal for the indefinite future: to help us, patients and physicians, the end users of our medical system, stand up with and for one another, for positive systems change.


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Relationships and Communication

Gratitude, Generosity, and Peace  /July 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/07/30/gratitude-and-generosity/

When I feel grateful, there is enough. I am enough. Even just saying the word, seeing it on the screen, brings me to a more peaceful state of mind and body.

 

Warrior Pride and a Plea for Kindness  /December 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/12/13/warrior-pride-and-a-plea-for-kindness/

There is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation, and the time and energy it takes to have one. It requires a certain degree of tolerance, and an unspoken contract of civility and courtesy.  We must choose carefully with whom we are willing to undertake such a venture.  And perhaps most importantly, we must be clear about our objective(s).  Do we really expect to change someone’s fundamentally held political or religious beliefs?  How realistic is that?  What other purpose, what other good, could possibly come from such conversations?

 

On Belay  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/02/on-belay/

The interview starts with the two men talking about Hank Williams’ troubled life, his ‘formidable demons,’ as Hiddleston puts it. He expresses compassion for this, as I have seen him do in previous interviews about other characters he has portrayed.  He describes how Williams rose to stardom quickly, but ‘with no real support, no one to anchor him.’  Funny how he uses that word, anchor—like belayer.

 

Opposition and Openness  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/20/atozchallenge-opposition-and-openness/

When I look at the list of definitions of oppose, I feel tired.  When I think of the energy it takes to constantly stand against something, I feel listless and drained.  Fighting, resisting, combatting, Obstructing, standing in the way, hindering, disputing, dissenting, contradicting—it’s exhausting.  I think of times when I meet someone new and all they talk about are the things they hate, that they can’t stand, that they want changed.  I cannot wait to get away and find levity.

 

Every Day a Revolution  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/22/atozchallenge-every-day-a-revolution/

Like the turning of an incandescent light bulb, gently, patiently, and consistently in one direction, the steady work of activists eventually leads to sudden and intense illumination.  Darkness becomes light, cold spaces are warmed.

 

Withhold Judgment  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/29/atozchallenge-withhold-judgment/

After all of this exploration, conversation, debate, research, and observation, once again I conclude that one of the most important practices for inner peace is to Withhold Judgment. Not all judgment, and not indefinitely, but much and for a while.

 

Playing My Part  /May 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/05/22/playing-my-part/

Given the awesome support network with which I am blessed, I feel an impulse to do something more with my writing—to amplify and project all this love and connection back out onto the world for some positive purpose.  But how can my words possibly make a difference?

 

Holding the Space for Personal Acts of Peace—On Listening  /July 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/07/11/holding-the-space-for-personal-acts-of-peace-listening/

I know I will not do justice to all the complexities of our issues in one blog post, but I ask your forbearance for my interpretation, as it has led me to greater conviction for what I can do, I, one person.

 

Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us  /September 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/09/22/holding-the-space-for-our-suffering-to-heal-us/

For a moment we felt stuck, we connection seekers.  I looked at our leader.  His expression conveyed nothing but humility and empathy.  His posture conveyed resolution.  Despite our deep longing, he refused to lead us into treacherously thorny fields, because he knew he did not have the time to bring us safely through to the other side.  But he also allowed us to process, invited us to consider how else we could collectively resolve our unease.

 

On the Golden Positivity Ratio  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/25/on-the-golden-positivity-ratio/

I remembered something about healthy relationships maintaining a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.  Turns out it’s actually 5:1, widely attributed to observations by Dr. John Gottman, renowned marriage and relationship psychologist.  I think the same thing applies in other realms, too, such as self-talk—a reflection of our relationships with ourselves.  It’s not a far leap to see how this idea pertains to news, social media, and any other human interactions.

 

Train to Withstand the Discomfort  /February 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/02/20/train-to-withstand-the-discomfort/

We all know the satisfaction and comfort of echo chambers.  Seeing, hearing, and reading that which validates our existing positions feels so good.  But the farther we regress here, the harder it becomes to tolerate a dissenting view.  We must resist this temptation; we are called to be more disciplined than this.

 

To Train or Not to Train  /May 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/05/08/to-train-or-not-to-train/

…even if we don’t all talk politics, we all need effective communication skills, especially in the arenas of conflict resolution, negotiation, parenting (which encompasses them all), and the like.  We are social beings—we only survive by cooperating and living well within our tribes, and by tribes living well among one another.  That can only happen if we practice getting along.

 

Tribal Pride and Tribalism  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/29/tribal-pride-and-tribalism/

We all need our tribes.  Belonging is an essential human need. To fit in, feel understood and accepted, secure—these are necessary for whole person health.  And when our tribes have purpose beyond survival, provide meaning greater than simple self-preservation, our membership feels that much more valuable to us.  But what happens when tribes pit themselves against one another?  How are we all harmed when we veer from “We’re great!” toward “They suck”?

 

 

 

The Movies That Move Us

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

The weekend has gone by too fast, and I have done none of the tasks on The List.  Oh well, it’s all good.  I got up this morning and made the green onion pancakes that my daughter loves so much.  We had a very successful shopping binge at Trader Joe’s and Target, woo hooooo!  And in between, we had something of a Christmas movie marathon:

“Love, Actually” (2003)

“The Holiday” (2006)

“While You Were Sleeping” (1995)

I’ve seen each of these movies so many times that I anticipate my favorite lines with giddiness and delight.  But they often end up serving as background on theTV as I accomplish other things.  Today, though, I was able to relax, sit, and watch.  It was touching and emotional, something of a re-centering.

What I love about each movie is how human all the characters are—there is something to relate to for every aspect of humanity in these films.  No one is perfect but all are lovable, all are flawed.  The relationships between characters—siblings, spouses, neighbors, friends, coworkers, parents, children, boy/girlfriends, and ex-es—are all interconnected, interdependent.  Somehow, watching these three movies in a row today, I’m struck by the portrayals of vulnerability, honesty, humility, judgment, love, and commitment, as well as lapses thereof.  It’s all so real, so human.

The hero’s journey is real.  We are all called to our own adventure, inevitably facing challenges and conflicts against our will.  We search for the easy ways out, alternative paths around our problems.  We avoid the hard feelings, the discomfort, the morass.  And then, somehow, we find a way—we meet someone who can help, we marshal our resources, we find the inner strength to do what’s needed, to carry on.  It’s messy and awkward, meandering and stumbling, often also hilarious and worthy of eye rolls and head shakes.  Looking back we find ourselves thinking, “Well why didn’t I just do that in the first place?”  And we can also appreciate the inevitable, valuable learning from the missteps and wrong turns.

Movies are movies, of course, not real life.  They are an escape.  They are also a mirror, as most art is.  They tell our shared stories, remind us of our relationships and connections through time, across nations, between genders and generations.  They’re called “movies” because they are still pictures shown in series to give the illusion of movement.  But perhaps we can think of them as moving us at our core, drawing us nearer to one another through shared experience and imagination.  The best movie experiences leave us a little cracked, a little exposed, a little sensitive—or a lot.  They remind us of our core humanity, inviting us to bring it forth and live it in authenticity.

Many thanks to all those who create and contribute to this art form.  You make us better.

Seek the Stories

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Do you have time in your doctors’ appointments to tell the story of your problem?  Do you even think of it as a story?  More and more I find myself saying to people, after they have given a list of symptoms in no particular order, “Tell me the story, starting from when you last felt well/normal.”  Then it all comes out in an interesting narrative, often with new insights as to causes, connections, and exacerbating factors along the way.

Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?  I have always been a non-fiction gal.  I appreciated The Grapes of Wrath and devoured the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series, but usually I avoid novels.  My favorite books this decade are The Art of Possibility, Rising Strong, Big Magic, Start With Why, and Give and Take.  I realize now that these books are also full of stories—just real-life ones.  I have tried to incorporate more stories in my writing, and I find it challenging and awkward.  But I will keep trying, maybe take a creative writing class someday.

I have heard some amazing stories recently, and I will get some details wrong, but I want to share them with you, in case they touch you as they touched me.

A doctor attends a mindfulness workshop because he is interested in mind-body medicine and always looking for new methods to explore his inner world.  Part of the workshop is a professional quality of life survey, on which he scores very high for compassion satisfaction and low for burnout.  He says it’s because this is a second career for him.

He always wanted to be a doctor growing up.  He was accepted to medical school in his home country, but his family could not afford it.  So he stuck with science and went to school the cheapest way possible, and graduated with a biology degree.  Over the years he got married and immigrated to the United States.  He never forgot his dream of being a doctor, but progressed nevertheless in his graduate basic science studies.  When he applied to allopathic medical school here in the 1980s, he was told that since his BS was from abroad and the class was already ‘culturally imbalanced,’ he would not be admitted.

He was offered a spot in an osteopathic school, however, and grabbed it.  Meanwhile his wife was pregnant with their first child.  He had to move away from her and his parents for residency, and while he was away his father died.  Sometime in there his wife also started medical school, and they made it through training and the births of two children (with two weeks maternity leave each for her) intact.  They are now both well-respected primary care physicians in a small outlying community.  He is a physician educator and leader.  They sit side by side at the dining room table on Sunday nights catching up on notes.  They call these their “Epic dates.”  [Epic is the name of a widely used electronic health record.]  Both of their children are doctors.  He never feels burned out; he is living his dream.

Another doctor, a leader in his field and his institution, and a black man, described everyday racism that most of us cannot fathom.  A neighbor approached him on the beach of his own lake house, accusing him of trespassing.  Passing drivers backed up to confront him at his mailbox, suspecting him of stealing some white person’s mail.  A cop pulls him over around the corner from his suburban home in a nice neighborhood, asking, “What are you doing around here?”

A man in his 50s breeds guppies for fun.  It started with his 5th grade teacher, who was his mom’s best friend.  He used to go over to her house with his mom, and got interested in her guppy tanks.  Now he has hundreds of his own tanks, and he knows everything there is to know about inbreeding, crossbreeding, guppy circadian rhythms, and where the world’s experts on guppy breeding live and work.  Now I know this is a thing.

Mr. Rogers is quoted as saying, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”  I wholeheartedly agree.

 

Hopey, Changey Hero Making

IVY Litt 11-8-17

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine, Day 8

Funny how I just wrote last night about connecting new dots to old dots.  It just happened again tonight!  A couple of weeks ago I responded to an online ad for an IVY Ideas Night with David Litt, author of Thanks Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, entitled, “How to Inspire, Persuade, and Entertain.”  Litt was a senior speechwriter for President Obama, so I thought I could learn new tips for presentations, and feel a little closer to the president whom I miss so much.

I’ve done public speaking since eighth grade, when our speech teacher first taught us abdominal breathing and I discovered the thrill of holding the attention of a room full of people with only my words.  I work at an academic medical center and I hold zero publications, but my CV documents over 10 years of professional presentations to various audiences.  I thought I was pretty good at this speaking thing.

Three years ago I came across this TED talk by Nancy Duarte, whose ‘secret structure’ of great presentations I have used since I subsequently read her book, Resonate.  Essentially, she recommends that we invite audiences on adventure stories, create active tension between what is and what could be, and most importantly, make the audience the hero.  I have done this better and worse since then, but I always recognize the framework when I see it.  Those familiar with this blog know that I am also a fan of Simon Sinek, whose central message is that we perform at our best when we are crystal clear about our Why.  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy Why you do it,” he says.  Barack Obama employs both authors’ principles with eloquence and finesse, which I noticed reading We Are The Change We Seek, a collection of his speeches as president.  The best speeches delivered in this construction create audiences who are inspired, motivated, and empowered to hail a meaningful call to action.

Obama is could be core values

That’s basically what David Litt conveyed tonight.  When asked what advice he was given that served him best, he said, “Imagine someone in your audience will tell their friend tomorrow about your talk.  What is the one thing you want them to say about it?”  What is the Why of your talk?  Even though he no longer writes speeches for the most powerful person in the world, he expressed a desire to continue inspiring, empowering, and promoting personal agency in all whom his work touches. Make each and every audience member their own hero.

It turns out, however, that this approach applies to much more than public speaking.  On my 50 hour, 500 mile, aspen-pursuing weekend in Colorado last month, I described to my dear friend my favorite moments at work.  At the end of a patient’s day-long physical, after I have spent 90 minutes listening to their stories of weight gain and loss, work transitions and complex family dynamics, and reviewing their biometrics and blood test results, I meet with them for an additional 30 minutes to debrief.  This is when I present an integrated action plan compiled by the nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and myself.  It is a bulleted summary of our conversations throughout the day, centered on the patient’s core values and self-determined short and long term health goals, and crafted with their full participation.  I get to reflect back to my patients all that I see them doing well, and shine light on areas for potential improvement.  It’s an opportunity to explore the possible—to Aim High, Aim Higher, as the United States Air Force exhorts.  I often present the plan with phrases like, “Strong work!” “You’ got this,” and “Can’t wait to see what the coming year brings!”  My friend turned to me as we wound through autumn gold in the Rocky Mountains, a bit tearfully, and said, “You make them the hero of their own story.”  Yeah, I do, I thought, and I got a little teary, too.

Words are powerful.  They are our primary tool for relating to each other, for making another person feel seen, heard, understood, accepted, and loved.  You don’t have to be a public speaker or a presidential speechwriter to make a positive difference with your words.  At work, in your family, with your friends, with people on the street and in the elevator—what is the one thing you want someone to remember from their encounter with you?

To You Who Hold Me Up

 

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October 27, 2017

My Dear Friend,

Thank you so much for hosting me this week!  Your home is a simple and inspiring space—you have clearly arranged and furnished it according to your core values, and its energy is palpable.  OF COURSE you’d orient the sofa squarely facing the big window and rising sun!

I am so grateful to know you, to enjoy welcoming access to your perspective, your experience, your generosity of spirit, and your willingness to explore the unanswered, the uncertain, the mysterious, the daunting.  Because of friends like you, I am a better version of myself.  I hope I can return the favor in your life.

Until next time—love and hugs–

🙂 ❤ Cathy

***

I wrote this to a particular friend today.  Then came the joyous realization that I have many friends to whom I could write the same.  They live their integrity every day, out loud and in person, with clarity, consistency, and discipline.  How lucky am I to be surrounded by such uplifting forces of nature?  Our shared curiosity saves us from cynicism.  Collective love emboldens us to ask the scary questions and stand strong facing the unknown.

None of us can know what’s coming around the corner.  It’s okay to feel afraid sometimes.  Things might suck rocks for a while.  And in the end, because we know we have one another, we also know we’ll be okay.  We walk together, laugh together, wonder together, and learn together.  We are truly stronger and better together.

How can I help but feel hopeful?

The Primal Fear of Overachievers

Not. Good. Enough.
The driver of overachievers to overachieve.
At some point the overachiever realizes how much they have accomplished.
I’m kinda awesome.
But it’s always overshadowed by
I’m Not Enough.
More overachieving.
I’m pretty awesome.
Still not enough.
More achieving.
Fuck, I am the shit.
And Still. Not. Enough.
Hopefully the realization of this dichotomy sets in–two sides of the same coin–so awesome and not enough.
So how to reconcile?
Reach out.
Connect with other Awesomes.
We are all enough.
Let something else drive the awesomeness, something other than running from not enough.
Be a contribution.
Collaborate, synergize with fellow Awesomes.
Then it doesn’t matter how awesome you are alone because all of your awesomeness just goes into the pot to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Awesomes hold each other up, expecting only that we will each bring our authentic selves to the table to share–nothing more, nothing less.
The only objectives are to participate, exchange, connect, explore, grow, and radiate awesomeness to make the world better for having communed.
We are enough.
Even if we don’t believe it all the time.
Put that fear in its place. It’s not allowed to drive anymore.

Applying the Wisdom of Atticus Finch

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_court

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

–Atticus Finch

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

 

How do you practice and achieve empathy?  How do you notice others doing it?

It’s been on my mind a lot these last two weeks.  Current American politics resembles an interminable abscess, oozing ever more copious and putrid gobs of pus, from ever more unforeseen tracts of deep, diseased tissue.  How can we find any Healing Connection in the midst of all this?

Here’s my answer:  Role play and storytelling.

Role Playing Game Males Lego Duplo Play Build

 

Role Play for the Good

I used to hate role play, and now I jump at any chance to try it!  It all changed through a 7 week teaching workshop I did during my chief resident year, and I am forever grateful for the experience.  Now I regularly use role play to teach motivational interviewing, or MI, to medical students and residents.  Put simply, MI is a counseling technique that focuses on patient autonomy, and aims to reinforce intrinsic motivation for change.  My teaching method has evolved over time, due to my own unexpected experience of ‘climbing into the skin’ of others.

In the beginning I used to play the patient, letting students take turns practicing their MI skills on me.  After a couple of sessions I realized that even though I was pretending, I really felt like the students were earnestly trying to help me change my health habits, or making me feel bad about myself, depending on their proficiency.  So to give them the benefit of this perspective, I had them take turns playing both patient and physician.  The feedback revealed a richer, more insightful experience for all.

In 2015 I attended the Active Lives conference, where my technique was further enlightened.  I got to role play four times with a partner: first as patient, then physician, doing it the ‘wrong’ way (directive, authoritative, confrontational), and again in both roles doing it the ‘right’ way (collaborative, empathetic, nonjudgmental).  I felt the immediate contrast of the four roles emotionally and viscerally.  When all I heard from the doctor was, “Yes, I know you’re busy, but you have to find time to exercise,” and “Why don’t you do this…” and, “You should… You need to… If you don’t, then…” I felt absolutely no impetus to take any of this advice.  But questions like, “How important is it to you to…  How confident are you to… What would it take…what would need to happen in order for you to…” and, “What would life be like if…” invited me to explore possibilities, helped me to imagine and create my own future.  As an authoritative physician, I felt frustrated at my patient’s resistance to my evidence-based and well-intentioned advice.  By contrast, as a collaborative doctor, I feel freed to embark on an improvisational Yes, And adventure to reveal each patient’s personal path to healthier habits.  Now I offer my students the opportunity to experience all four roles.

I remembered this insight evolution last week when I came across a 1970 video of Jane Elliott’s classroom racism experiment.  She divides the class by eye color, asserts that blue-eyed children are better than brown-eyed children on one day, then reverses the premise the next.  While she makes privilege assignments that likely would not fly today, she also debriefs with the kids, helping them identify their assumptions, feelings, actions and reactions—much more authentically and directly than I think we are willing to do today.  She does it all without judging or shaming, pointing out biases and encouraging her students to examine them for themselves.  I admire her for pioneering this exercise, and I bet it affected her students in profound and lasting ways.

storytelling

 

The Importance of Story

Clearly, we cannot possibly depend on such academic practices to develop everyday empathy.  Luckily we now have infinitely easier access to one another’s stories than ever before, which is the next best thing.   Lately I feel a keen new appreciation of the importance of storytelling for conveying experience and stimulating mutual understanding.  Obligingly, the universe (read Facebook) has provided me with numerous testimonies of my fellow humans’ experiences and conditions, and this week they touch me even more acutely.  Here are some of them:

  • Former white supremacists talk about the importance of upholding others’ humanity, even as we denounce their beliefs.
  • A black writer recounts multiple instances of racism over her lifetime, inviting her white high school classmate to imagine and consider how they exemplify his white male privilege.
  • The head of neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic in Florida tells his story of illegal, then legal immigration, and a subsequent life dream realized.
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson shares stories of genitals on fire, educators’ responsibility to the electorate, pressure from his black classmate to contribute to ‘the black cause,’ realizing that he is doing just that, and why he wants to be buried instead of cremated (he has changed my mind, by the way).
  • David Duke’s godson credits the college friends who welcomed him despite his pedigree, with helping him defy and shed it.

 

What’s the Point?

The overarching goal here is to intentionally thwart the abstraction and dehumanization of people who are different from ourselves.  Stepping into another person’s shoes, ‘climbing into (their) skin,’ imagining how they feel, and actually feeling it—this is the best protection against bias, prejudice, and discrimination.  Empathy forms the sticky webs of connection that stymie the hymenoptera of hatred mid-flight, or catch us in the face and remind us to look where we’re going.  Where do we want our thoughts, words, actions, and relationships to take us?

I imagine a world of colorfully flawed humans, who acknowledge our biases openly and honestly; who recognize the risks that those biases carry; who accept ourselves, warts on soles and souls and all; who commit to a lifetime of extending that acceptance to one another; and who understand that it is our relationships, all of them, that kill us or save us.

So let’s play and tell—and feel and listen.  Really,  it’ll be good for all of us.