Rallying for Reentry

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We’re baaaaaaack…  Sort of.

After ten weeks sheltering and working mostly remotely, the primary care team I lead will phase back into regular office hours this week.  What a long, strange trip it’s been!  And it’s nowhere near over!  But the next chapter begins, and we are ready.  We return with limited staff, all spaced, masked, and sanitized.  We have planned for weeks and done our best to anticipate hiccups and pitfalls.  Now it’s time to dig in and execute.  Exciting!

And maybe a little scary?  We will have minimal face to face appointments in the beginning, but as with businesses and services across the country, we will ramp up over time.  How will this affect and be affected by coronavirus infection and illness rates going forward?  What will flu season look like, while we continue mitigation efforts for COVID-19?  Despite the multitude of models, nobody can say for sure.  And still we must move.

So what’s a leader’s role here?  How can I best serve my team as we step boldly back onto the path, besides planning and execution of operations and logistics?  Now more than ever, I must be both clear and adaptive about my leadership—its meaning, influence, and potential.

This weekend some strong feelings emerged to center, ground, focus, and guide me.  Interesting, isn’t it, for my professional peace to rest so surely on emotions?  The cognitive knowledge that my own leaders have my back gives me confidence and reassurance—I trust them.  I trust us all to flex and adapt as our collective situation evolves.  One could argue that trust itself is, by nature, more limbic than rational.  And such is the human condition—we are emotional beings who think, not the other way around.

So I embrace and anchor to my positive emotions.  I can moderate turbulence with solid intellect and steady spirituality.  I believe good leaders do this visibly and vulnerably—they lead by example.  Right now we all need to manage through a morass of complex feelings—to identify, accept, and allow their passage through us.  This is how we take care of ourselves and each other, and get the work done.

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Pride

I could not be more proud of our team.  Like so many cohesive teams in an emergency, we pulled together, reorganized, and mobilized like champions.  Computers were set up at home, schedules rewritten, tasks redistributed, and personnel reallocated.  Folks overcame fear and anxiety, at times severe, to help other departments, learn new skills, and grow into leaders themselves.  They made connections across the health system and broadened perspectives that will now benefit our whole team.  We supported one another through semiweekly touch points, instant messaging, photos, stories, and some tears.  I have no doubt that we can not only navigate but crush this crisis arc, and emerge a stronger, even more cohesive version of ourselves.

Protectiveness

As clinical director, I appoint myself chief cheerleader and den mother.  Through various channels, it’s my job to keep a finger on the pulse of morale and engagement.  And while I hold the team up to its own standards of integrity and accountability, I also keep a vigilant eye for assailants from outside.  As we prepare to reopen, I consider how I will protect my team from abusive patients.  I think the risk is low, but what if someone refuses to mask or submit to temperature screening?  What if they become aggressive or belligerent?  Our team has cultivated empathy and compassion, especially for patients who feel anxious and sick.  Still, I will not compromise our safety for someone’s angry outburst or agitation.  We have a plan for handling such situations that will never tolerate physical confrontation or humiliation.

Loyalty

We’ve been through a lot together the two years I have been back on this team.  Turnover was high in 2018, and engagement low.  We’ve since built a culture based on connection and accountability, and this complex work continues—culture work never ends.  Technically I hold an interim position; I am a steward.  But I will not leave until the right successor is identified and groomed.  I’m in for as long as this takes, as long as I am able, as long as the team will have me—I will not abandon ship.

Conviction

Our team has a particular, holistic approach to patient care and relationship.  In order to live this approach for ourselves, we defined our core values a year ago:  Kindness and compassion; connection and collaboration; fun, joy, creativity; and accountability.  I see now that we have an opportunity in this moment to further clarify our mission and vision.  Nothing like a global, existential pandemic to make us reorient and reclaim our raison d’être!

Vision and Execution:  It is the leader’s role to manage both—to host the ball and move fluidly between dance floor and balcony, as Ronald Heifetz and colleagues say.

Let’s get this party started.

Where Is the Light?

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Photo by Tobias Baumgaertner, Fairy penguins near Melbourne, Australia

*deep breath*

I always wonder about you, dear reader.  Where does this post find you, since we last connected?  How are you?

It’s a good practice to check in with ourselves regularly.  These nine weeks of sheltering in place have exercised my patience, awareness, and identity, among other things.  What have they done for you?  How are you?

For a couple weeks now I have felt all but overwhelmed by darkness.  Infection and death rates have slowed, but they will continue to accumulate indefinitely.  I worry that we will become inured, calloused, to the human toll.  PPE is still in short supply at hospitals across the country. Thousands of my colleagues continue to risk both their physical as well as mental and emotional lives to care for gravely ill patients.  They leave their families and support networks to become the sole supports for patients alone in the hospital, whose own loved ones may not visit, even in the hour of death.

Mostly I have felt burdened by the fighting.  The shouting, protesting, mean memes, and ad hominem all around me, directed both by and at my friends and colleagues.  Important reflections and insights arose this week that helped me see clearly the internal origins of my distress.  I re-accepted and re-integrated these parts of myself.  I was able to laugh out loud, exclaiming, “How fascinating!”  I know I will necessarily repeat this discovery exercise ad nauseam, ad infinitum—such is life, karma says, also laughing.  But for now I feel lighter, unburdened, more at peace.

So I thought about role models for peace.  I feel so lucky to have so many.  But one in particular shone in my consciousness this week:  Dr. Vivek Murthy, our 19th Surgeon General.  He has published a book, Together, in which he “makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern: a root cause and contributor to many of the epidemics sweeping the world today from alcohol and drug addiction to violence to depression and anxiety. Loneliness, he argues, is affecting not only our health but also how our children experience school, how we perform in the workplace, and the sense of division and polarization in our society.”

I recently watched a live interview with him conducted by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, widow of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote When Breath Becomes Air.  I listened with one earbud, watching in my peripheral vision, while hurrying around my kitchen, preparing chicken and assembling a salad, all before rushing to host a Zoom workout.  It struck me that in stark contrast to my frenetic energy at that moment, Dr. Murthy presented only calm and serenity.  He answered every question with love, joy, conviction, and equanimity.  I noticed and marveled.  Then I rushed around some more and got on with my evening tasks.

Looking back, I have felt this serene and loving presence every time he speaks.  He has a way of making everybody in the room comfortable, welcome, and included.  Even if he’s interacting only with a moderator, it feels like he’s speaking to me personally.  He sees me, he gets me.  He cares about me.  In searching for the Kalanithi interview, I came across this lecture and discussion he gave at Stanford University in 2015.  I hope you will take the time to watch (or at least listen).  Notice how he shares stories of his parents, his patients, and people he met during his national ‘listening tour’ at the beginning of his tenure as Surgeon General.  Hear how he sees and knows every one of these people in their whole humanity.  Abraham Verghese, physician, author of Cutting for Stone, and another hero of the profession, moderated the Q&A, and also named Dr. Murthy’s equanimity—his peacefulness.  Notice how Murthy validates questions asked by students and faculty alike.  Observe his humility, juxtaposed with a resolute, unwavering point of view.  Do you feel it?  Does he not inspire you to be a better person?

Dr. Murthy and his wife, Dr. Alice Chen, have written an open letter to us medical professionals, in the midst of this global pandemic.  Reading it, once again I feel seen, understood, and comforted.  I feel true belonging in a proud and humble tribe of professionals, committed to service.  They shine their light on all of us, so we may see the path before us more clearly and walk more confidently, knowing we’ got our peeps holding us up.  This, in turn, gives us the strength and love to hold up others along the way.

I see the light tonight.  It emanates from my fellow and sister humans, and it saves me.

For a little more light, check out this Jon S. Randal Peace Page post with the picture of the penguins.  In it you will read about gems like John Krazinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube series, and Chris LaCass, founder of Pandemic Kitchen, feeding New York City’s homeless.  You can also share your own stories of inspiration and light in the darkness.

Where is your light today?  How will you keep it in front, as we travel this long road together?

 

 

Trust and Safety in an Uncertain World

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Suddenly I felt my heart pounding.  My palms got sweaty.  My jaw felt tense.  I’m anxious, I realized.  It felt like sometimes when I speak up in big meetings.  Wow, I don’t even have to be in front of people for this to happen, how fascinating.

It was the second or third comment I had written on another Facebook page, belonging to a high school classmate.  I think we became ‘friends’ through his wife, a friendly acquaintance of mine in high school, with whom I’ve been connected on Facebook for several years.  I don’t really know her husband at all, and yet here I was, writing long replies on his page about universal masking, why recommendations changed between March and now, and why I trust Dr. Fauci despite his apparent flip-flop on this issue.

I had entered someone else’s house, offering my unsolicited opinions.  Though we have a handful of mutual friends, I had no idea who else would attend this party, and whether I would be welcome.  I wasn’t sure it was safe.

And yet I felt compelled to enter, why?  Perhaps I felt defensive of my professional standard bearer, Dr. Fauci, the father of modern infectious disease and icon of science, medicine, and public health.  He has basically led the research to define and defeat HIV/AIDS since the 1980s.  Through six administrations, he has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to successfully manage H1N1, Ebola, and Zika, at home and abroad.  He is one of my heroes.  Likely, I also wanted to absolve myself a little, as I had also recommended against masking in public early on.  I wanted to help some strangers see us, the ‘experts’, as human and fallible, and also earnest and caring, worthy of heeding.

So I obsessed over my comments.  I read and reread before posting.  I edited after posting.  I included the links embedded above, inviting anyone on the thread to hear Dr. Fauci in his own words, in full.  I offered my own mea culpa twice, explaining how academics sometimes fall victim to ivory tower thinking, as we did in this case.  Perhaps this was my attempt at earning back whatever trust people may have lost because we experts contradicted ourselves in such an important and pivotal moment.  I regret this, and I wanted people to know, and then maybe not hold it against me (us).  Would I be crucified?  Or would I crack a door open to hearing what I had to say?  I feel anxious now, just thinking about it again.

My own friends discussed this on my page a few weeks ago, after my post on antibody testing (our recommendations have not changed yet).  Paul, MD PhD and rheumatologist, pointed out, “US experts really blew it initially when it came to masks… All they had to do was consider the possibility that Asian countries might be right and then consider that the risk associated with (masking) was virtually zero.  The first thing experts need to do, when confronted with circumstances that are truly new to them, is admit uncertainty and base recommendations accordingly.”  I’m so lucky to have such honest and direct friends.  I replied that I felt badly for following the ‘expert’ advice like a sheep (which is exactly how others on my acquaintance’s page described followers of universal masking, yikes).  “Lesson learned,” I wrote—but have I really learned it?  David, Paul’s and my classmate who now leads quality and hospitalist programs at his institution, replied, “It’s weird to be here with you (two) bashing experts, since the three of us are by any definition, experts.  But the value of experts is not that they’re always right, but that they have a) a better track record and b) the ability to self-correct.”  Yes, humility is key.

It all makes me wonder, how do we trust someone?  I have conversations every day with patients and non-medical friends and family, educating and advising, and they are appreciative; they trust me.  But we have already established mutually respectful, personal relationships.  What made me think I could go on this unfamiliar man’s social media page, interact with perfect strangers, and have them trust or accept anything I said, when they had already expressed reservations about, if not hostility toward, my ‘tribe’?  Was it my place?

The original post commented on universal masking and referenced Dr. Fauci not in a snarky, pejorative, or aggressive way.  If it had I would have scrolled right by.  Because it was a neutral presentation, I felt it could be safe to enter this house and offer my perspective.  Out of respect for the page owner and his friends, I did my best to present both humbly and objectively, to be informative but not condescending.  I really wanted to put my best online foot forward, to represent my tribe and my profession as well and as trustworthily (it’s a word!), as possible—to connect.  So far I have not been attacked, and a few readers have liked my comments.

In the end, as I have written before, I think it’s about how we show up to one another.  I wrote recently about tribal culture, and how through this crisis, individuals can help our own tribes thrive by modeling a more collaborative rather than competitive mindset, by amplifying our togetherness.  “Who do we want to be on the other side of this crisis?” I asked.  David Logan and colleagues go on in their work to discuss how tribes can effectively interact with other tribes, forming alliances and advancing even greater good together.  They posit that tribes draw closer when their respective members, especially designated leaders (representatives), connect.

We find ourselves now in an existential battle for our lives, literally.  Now is exactly the time to find common ground, step onto it, set up camp, and make decisions from there—to merge tribes.  A friend asked me today, “Who do you want to be now?”

I want to be a connector, I answered.  I will do my best not to contribute to division, polarization, alienation, disconnection, and suffering, through my words or actions.  I will not be perfect.  I will make mistakes.  I will continue to learn and apply.  I will strive to earn and maintain people’s trust.  And I will help make it safe for people to question and challenge, discuss and explore any point of view.  In the face of uncertainty, this is what I can offer.

Please Stop With the Fighting

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What a difference a week makes.  How are you feeling?  I can only describe my own experience as ‘off.’  Things feel heavy, fraught, tense, uncertain, and anxious.  All the talking and writing I do about tolerating uncertainty and holding space for tension feels almost comically hypocritical right now, as I grapple with my own practices.  But more than that, I feel accelerated degradation of relationships all around me.  Armed men march and yell at the Michigan capitol building (where a woman governor serves).  More armed men gather in front of state public health director Dr. Amy Acton’s house in Ohio (not the capitol, where a man governor serves), saying there will be no violence, “for now.”

People on the ‘side’ of public health deride decisions to reopen state economies as willfully ignorant, even malicious.  People on the ‘side’ of reopening economies derail stay at home orders as fascist.  Perhaps these are the minority voices of each ‘side’, but they are loud, and they dominate public discourse and social media (I know, I know, moderate my intake, yada yada).  Yet another false dichotomy escalates with increasing vehemence on both sides.  I have mulled it for weeks and not found a good way to write about it.

Late yesterday, I found two pieces that help, written by conservatives I respect.

In the first, “What Republicans’ Kool Aid Moment Means for the Rest of Us”, Chris Ladd outlines our fatal flaw as humans, and then asks some profoundly important questions about how to resist the ultimate pitfalls of that flaw:

“Confronted with displays of cult loyalty we commonly resort to some mistaken conclusions, dismissing these people as crazy or stupid. These assumptions are born of the same logic that leads people to blame the sick for their illness, a desire to manufacture some difference between them and us, something that would leave us immune to their condition. We want to believe that there’s something uniquely broken, inferior, or even subhuman about the people in those pathetically sad images of self-destruction. Those dismissive characterizations of cultists aren’t just false, they are dangerous.

“We are not inherently rational creatures. By nature, our model of reality is not a product of careful individual inquiry, formed through a critical review of all available data, but a social construct heavily influenced by our preferences, hopes, and the collective will of our tribe. Human beings are capable of independent, rational thought premised on a body of constantly moving data, just like we are capable of juggling or riding a bike. Absent special training, critical, data-centered reasoning is so effortful, difficult and unnatural that any political order premised on the rationality of the average man will be consistently unstable.

“Even with careful training over years, a life of critical thought remains a challenging endeavor, costly to maintain and not suited to every circumstance. Riding a bike sounds easy once you’ve learned to do it but try dialing your phone or eating a sandwich while peddling and you’ll see the challenge. Careful, critical reasoning is resource-expensive. None of us engage in it as much as we think we do.

* * * * *

In the second essay, “What If We Loved Them Both?”  David French invites us to exercise that resource-expensive skill of critical, rational, nuanced and complex analysis:

“Once again, our nation is faced with the painful process of sorting through grave sexual assault allegations against a powerful man. Once again, the public assessment of the veracity of those claims is lining up all-too-neatly with the partisan needs of the moment. Those who object to the rush to judgment against the accused will often ask if how we’d respond if, say, Joe Biden or Brett Kavanaugh was someone you loved. What if he was your father or grandfather. Would you feel like they’d been treated fairly?

“The counter is quick. What if Tara Reade or Christine Blasey Ford was someone you loved? Can you imagine how you’d feel as they mustered up the courage to tell a dreadful story and then you watched them endure the inevitable slings and arrows of scorn, hatred, and mockery?

“But there’s a different, better construct. What would the world look like if an imperfect population that possessed imperfect knowledge loved them both?  

“Due process is just, and it’s indispensable to the pursuit of justice. It is the answer to the question at the start of this newsletter—in the most fraught of claims and the most vicious of crimes—What if we loved them both? What if both accused and accuser were of equal worth? When we consider the right to bring a claim, the requirements of evidence, and even the time limits imposed on cases (given the difficulty of both defending against and proving very old allegations), we not only humbly acknowledge our inability to peer into a person’s soul to discern truth, we also acknowledge that even the mightiest man can and should be brought low when the evidence dictates. 

“But protecting due process (like protecting free speech) is hard. Just as permitting bad speech is a necessity for maintaining the larger, just legal structure of free speech—individual injustices can also protect the larger, necessary structure of due process.

“Each person involved in the controversy is of equal worth, a human being created in God’s image. That means the accusers have a right to bring their claim and be heard, respectfully and fully. That means the accused have their own rights to defend themselves, and a presumption of innocence is wise. Our own extreme fallibility and inability to peer into a human soul means that we should diligently seek external evidence that corroborates or rebuts any allegation or defense. 

“It is true that our culture has frequently failed women. It has failed in the obligation to treat them with respect or to fully hear or fairly consider their claims of terrible crimes. It is also true that our culture has also failed men, especially black men. There are simply too many terribly tragic tales of men dying at the hands of a mob in the face of an unsubstantiated claim of sexual misconduct. Even today, there are echoes of that awful injustice in the way in which black men are treated in campus courts. 

“But the answer to historical injustice isn’t another, equal and opposite injustice. That’s the score-settling that leads to endless ideological and partisan conflict. Instead, the answer is to discern the correct standard, and hew to it as closely as we can. Conservatives should not seek ‘revenge’ for Brett Kavanaugh. Progressives should not give in to the temptation of believing a Democrat through highly-subjective judgments of ‘demeanor’ or ‘temperament.’ That’s the God’s-eye view. And human beings are terrible at playing God.” 

* * * * *

The essays above, while encouraging, also ring abstract and esoteric.  How do we take these lofty ideals and apply them today, in our daily lives, so as not to feel so disconnected, so disparate?  Because what good are ideals if we cannot live them out?  We really are all in this together.  What’s helping you remember that, really feel it, right now?

In our lifetime, there may be no more important moment than right now to recognize and truly honor, in our minds, hearts, and bodies, our shared humanity.  I took a stab at an action plan with the list below.  What would you add?

  1. Stop thinking ‘we’ are better than ‘them’; really try hard to see everybody as equally worthy to engage.
  2. Marshal our best skills at patience and generosity when ‘they’ say they’re better than ‘us.’
  3. Focus on shared goals and humanity— how are we all ‘us’?
  4. Lead by example resisting the urge to oversimplify and over generalize; look for and point out complexity and nuance.  See this as a strength rather than a weakness.
  5. Do not fall for baiting and inciting statements meant to trigger defensiveness.
  6. Acknowledge and concede the flaws and faults of ‘our side’; encourage others to do the same.
  7. Disengage, for the moment, when ‘opponents’ as well as ‘allies’ show themselves, or we find ourselves, to be uninterested in following or unable to follow these rules of engagement. Even when our intentions are earnest, this stuff is hard. And it takes grit and perseverance to train. And almost all of us are total novices at it. So we have a LONG way to go. Try again later. And again, and again, and again.

 

A Time to Try New Things

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My friends:  What’s happening for you these many weeks?  What are you noticing (again, still, and newly)?  What do you miss most, least, and/or not at all from pre-COVID life?

What’s been the best thing that’s happened for you in this time?

Many of us are out of our depth here; we have no map.  As NASA says, we must “test as we fly and fly as we test.”  That necessarily means putting aside what we usually do and how things usually work, and trying new things–experimenting.  What a fantastic opportunity for learning, growth, and connection!

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The Alphabet Workout

How has the pandemic affected your physical activity?  How have you adjusted?  After the New Year I realized I needed workout buddies to strengthen my workout resolve.  My colleague and I started exercising together after work a couple days a week, and then the pandemic hit.  Almost right away I came across various alphabet-based interval workouts, perfect for the newly shut in.  My siblings and friends and I started meeting on Zoom to try it, first spelling our names.  We moved on quickly to our heroes’ names, and now to sayings we like.  Exercise, accountability, variety, fun, and connection—yay!

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Baking

My daughter may single-handedly make our whole family diabetic.

Spring break started a week early, then the kids transitioned to distance learning, with minimal direct, real time interaction with teachers.  With so much more time to complete homework and a recently developed fascination with any and all things French, we now have a baker in the house.  And with anaphylactic allergies in the family, recipes are necessarily converted to vegan and nut-free.  To date she has succeeded with macarons, beignets, fruit turnovers, cupcakes, and red velvet cake.  But by far I’m proudest of her opera cake, completed tonight and surely damaging to my waistline.  It’s worth it, though, to watch her experiment, fail, redirect, and succeed (mantra = “It’s edible!”), gaining confidence with every attempt.

The sibs had better not abandon me on those Zoom workouts, though!

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Karen Cornell, January 2020, Loveland, CO

Circadian Loosening

I always knew I was a night owl, but holy cow, left to my own devices, I am practically nocturnal.  I never pulled all-nighters for school.  The first time I stayed up all night reading was for one of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books—I had not even done that for Harry Potter!  I have discipline when I need it.  I get up for morning calls now; I even look forward to them, as a sailor looks for the buoy thrown by his shipmates when he has fallen overboard.  I will readjust to a regular work schedule when the time comes.  But for now I can truly enjoy my owl self.

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Connecting with Friends

Maybe you’re missing your friends the most.  Somehow I’m not, which is a bit shocking and disconcerting.  But maybe it’s because I’m still connected, in some cases better than ever.  I miss meeting Donna for breakfast at our usual egg and toast place.  But I love that we now talk weekly on the phone while walking outside.  I continue to send and receive snail mail from friends across the country.  Perhaps I’m FaceTiming more with the Colorado sister and my parents, in addition to our sibs Zoom workouts.  And finally yesterday, blogging friends Nancy and Donna and I got together, after talking about it for at least three years.  Of course it was over Zoom, but without COVID-19 who knows how long it would have taken us to meet in person, living in Washington, Illinois, and Michigan?  Now we plan to ‘meet’ monthly—so much to share!

Writing Out of My Comfort Zone

Thanks to sister member Christina Guthier from Ozan Varol’s Inner Circle, I accepted a 5 day mindful writing challenge set by Nadia Colburn this past week.  Free, only five days—why not?  Nancy, Anne, and a few other friends agreed to try it with me—they accepted my Facebook invitation.  After a short meditation and poem, each day Nadia offered a prompt, followed by ten minutes of writing dotted with serene reminders to stay with the breath and remember to smile.  In these brief, structured and yet freeform sessions, I stretched existing ideas and queries farther than usual.  I quieted the inner critic sometimes and not others.  I learned a little more about my style and preferences for writing.  And I wrote a poem.

Based on “I Am Offering This Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Day 5’s prompt asked us to write a poem entitled, “I Am Offering This ______ to You.”

Onward, my friends.  Let us try new things, learn, grow and connect.

 

I Am Offering This Love to You

So imperfect

So flawed

So human

Yet honest, earnest, real

How can I make sure

You feel it the way I intend?

Or do I even need to?

Who would that be for?

What’s the best way for you to feel

Loved by me?

According to whom?

What is the best outcome

Of all this love

We carry for each other

In our families

Between friends

For our country

For the world

For humanity?

How can we live into this now

Today?

I am offering this Love to you

Now

On this day

In this moment

With this breath

What will you do with it?

How Do We Get Better?

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It is Week 5 of sheltering in place for many of us.  How are you feeling?  What emotions occur most often?  To where and on whom are they directed?  How do you see the future, and what does that feel like?

Who do we want to be on the other side if this crisis?

For all our sakes, I hope we can be more patient, kind, empathic, open-minded, thoughtful, intentional, and connected.  The COVID-19 pandemic shows us what ultimate paradox really means—trauma and grief on a scale not seen in generations, as well as an opportunity for unprecedented growth, both as individuals and as a society.

I think about the risks and possibilities as both a clinician and citizen.  The experiences overlap, as do the strategies to mitigate suffering.  I am so grateful that physician burnout and well-being has already been addressed in so many institutions, and at so many levels, before this crisis hit.  Programs like physician peer support and Balint Groups show us that our leadership cares for our well-being, or at least recognizes the need for organizational support of it.  Employee Assistance Programs and the like are much more visible now, and hopefully barriers to access are also down.  Everywhere I see offers for formal organizational support and ‘wellness.’

But what will really make the difference in the end?  How will we really grow into our best selves through this, the greatest global challenge of most of our lives so far?

I think it will be in our small, day to day, apparently mundane interactions.

Too often we underestimate the impact of our milieu on our attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions—how we are impacted by our environment, and how we impact it in return.

A wise friend observed two groups of people responding to COVID-19.  One sees the pandemic in terms of ‘what’s happening to me.’  The other experiences it as ‘what’s happening to all of us.’  This is a falsely dichotomous oversimplification, obviously.  But it may be instructive to notice one day this week, if we were to categorize our own thinking/feeling/speaking/acting with regard to COVID, where would we land more of the time?

I’m reminded of the stages of tribal culture described by David Logan and colleagues in their book, Tribal Leadership, and presented eloquently in his TED talk.  I have discussed this idea in previous posts.

The visual above encapsulates Logan et al’s theory of tribal culture.  Their work aims to advance groups from lower to higher levels of culture and performance.  In this framework, the currency of cultural economy is language.  Each tribe member’s dominant cultural stage mindset emanates in their words, and is represented/encapsulated in each stage’s mantra above.

Those who experience COVID-19 as ‘what’s happening to me’ likely live in the lower three stages most of the time—self-absorbed, competing, uninterested in personal or societal connection and growth.  Those able to see how ‘this is happening to us all’ have made the shift toward an Outward Mindset, seeing their node selves as inextricable members of a larger, interconnected system.  For a system to function well, grow, and sustain itself best through crisis after crisis, it must achieve a collective “We’re great” or “Life is Great” mindset.

Whom do you know on your team, among your friends, or in your family, who lives these words (most of the time)?  How do you feel when you’re around them?  What do you hear them saying right now? What energy do they exude?  When I meet people like this in my life, I feel calm, soothed.  They remind me to be humble, and to remember what I can do to help, both myself and others.  I feel connected in their presence; I recall my strengths and potential for contribution, and I’m motivated to act accordingly.  They give me hope.

So what do I hear them saying, what language do they speak that elevates our communal culture?

First, they avoid ad hominem.  They refrain not just from political rhetoric and attacks; they don’t make generalizations about groups based on race, gender, geography, social class, etc.  They also withhold judgment—they entertain various stories about people’s motivation, circumstances, and values, rather than jumping to oversimplified conclusions based on their own biases.

Second, they empathize.  They strive to relate to each person they’re with, as well ‘the others’.  And if they can’t do that, they validate the others’ feelings.  “That’s so hard,” can be the most soothing words a person can hear when they’re struggling and suffering. And “Well, we don’t know what they’re living,” reminds me to be humble.

Third, they offer hope.  But it’s not false hope or superficial, Pollyannish positivity.  They honestly believe in and see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they point to it for our benefit.  They do this by asking, “What do you need?”  “How can I help?” and saying simply, “I’m here.”

When I come across people like this, I want to be around them more.  I want to emulate them.  I point out their words and actions to others, and show the positive movement they inspire in me and others.  Stage 4 and 5 tribal leaders lead by example.  And make no mistake, they are everywhere.  They often don’t have a title or any designated authority.  But the team/organization/family is always better for their presence.

If you have people like this on your team, consider:  how can you be more like them?  What do they inspire in you?  If you are this person, how can you bring people along in this mindset?  This is how we get better through our current crisis:  We find the leaders who speak the language of We, Together, Growth, and Hope.  We find and follow those who set the example, and we strive to set it ourselves.  We take advantage of the programs and support systems around us.  We get help, get better, and then turn around and help others.

Yes, there is much trauma and grief.  There is also boundless love and connection.  We find the latter easily when we look, and it sustains us.  We can absorb that energy, join that movement, and make a difference in every encounter with our fellow humans.  We can absolutely be better.

 

What Emerges from Crisis:  Connection, Learning, and Contribution

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“What observations/discoveries/learnings have you noticed in these weeks?”

In phone calls, emails, and snail mail to friends, I find myself asking this question repeatedly.  This exercise yields two wins:  1) I’m connecting to my people all across the country; 2) I get to answer for myself, and new insights emerge each time.

How are you connecting with your people in these weeks of physical separation?

What have you had to reframe, create, and experiment with to make life work in our sudden new reality?  How does it feel?  What are you learning?

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 Inconvenient Emotions

Very early in the pandemic, when I realized my clinical volume would drop to practically nothing, I started to feel something akin to survivor’s guilt.  I still feel it—I am not on the front lines; I myself am not in harm’s way, as so many of my colleagues are.  I feel relief for not having to be there (yet).  Then I feel guilty for feeling relieved.  So I try to make myself useful, giving Zoom presentations on wellness to colleagues and firesides on Instagram for the public.  Life has settled into something of a routine.  I do video calls, helping with operations management and team organization from an armchair (standing desk).  Turns out I enjoy working from home!  And I feel guilty for enjoying anything about this time of unprecedented global disruption.  Hello, mental and emotional whiplash, my inescapable human companion.  Thankfully, self-compassion practice keeps me sane.

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Acceptance with Agency

“The first step to changing your circumstances is to accept them.”  Wut?  I have grappled for years to understand this concept; today I think I finally got it (thank you, Donna!).

Today I choose to define acceptance as a state of possibility, rather than of resignation or victimhood.  Sometimes it helps to describe something by pointing to its opposite:  What happens when we refuse to accept what is?  Often we cling to what we think should beWhat should be is a narrow set of unmet expectations that keeps us anchored to the past, or at least to an unreality that simply does not exist.

What happens when we finally accept what is?  We are liberated to ask some important questions:  How do I feel about what is?  What are the best and worst potential outcomes from here?  What do I want to be different?  How can I effect that change?  What is my work here?

Accepting what is brings us over the threshold from the narrowness of what should be to the wide possibility of what could be, where our agency is what we make of it.

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Optimism + Cynicism = Peace

Some days I get so excited, reveling in human ingenuity and resilience!  Look at the transitions we all made, practically on a dime, moving healthcare and education online, organizing COVID testing and creating treatment protocols, constructing hospital wards in convention centers, initiating clinical trials, and sharing experience and data internationally at breakneck speed!  All this learning and application, holy cow, how could we not be smarter, more connected, and better after all of this?

By being human, that’s how.  Despite our great capacity for survival and adaptation, we are creatures of habit and products of our environments and relationships.  We revert more easily than we convert.  On cynical days I think, “Nothing will change.  We will stay the same stupid species we have become, just a couple hundred thousand deaths closer to our own stupid, eventual extinction.  And we will deserve it.”

Here’s the fascinating thing, though:  I vacillate in this false dichotomy lightly, even though the emotions on both sides can get intense.  We humans are such a complex enigma, capable of profound love and selflessness, and also unfathomable hatred and destruction.  That’s simply what is—we are all of these things, intricately complicated in our nature.  Each one of us possesses an infinite set of potential vectors for connection and/or destruction.  But I still get to choose what to do with my time, energy, and resources in this lifetime.  It’s my call.  So I’m okay; I’ got this.

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Co-Creation:  The New Normal

The last two years I have had the privilege to work with colleagues around our vision, mission, and values.  I have studied various work cultures, observed and interviewed associates and teammates.  LOH taught me the language and framework to synthesize my own, evolving style of relational leadership.  During this downtime—this unearned vacation—I have time and space to consider a bigger picture.  What about our culture best manifests our mission and values?  How did this facilitate our successes in reorganization and mobilization?  What held us back?  What needs to happen (change?) in order for us to emerge from this crisis in learning and growth, rather than in fear and trauma?  These questions apply professionally, personally, and societally.

My strengths lie in relationship and connection.   Throughout this long journey to flatten the curve (and it will be months), I can contribute my insight, observations, and talents at synthesis, creativity and vision, to make our new normal as mindful, intentional, collaborative, and functional as possible.  I can paint a vivid picture of where we could go.  I can embrace dissenting voices and find alignment in apparently divergent interests.  I can help us be better.  This is the contribution I can make.

What will your contribution be?

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