Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us

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Hello again, dear friends.  Peace, love, and joy be with you on this, the autumnal equinox.

This post marks the conclusion of the Healing Through Connection Summer Series, 2016:  Holding the Space.  The story I will tell is important to me, and I love that it’s the series finale.  I wish I had posted on the last day of summer, but the first day of fall is okay, too.  Two days ago I was privileged to witness a whole lot of people, hold a whole lot of space, for a whole lot of suffering.  And I posit that we all came away better for it.  I invite you to sit back, get comfy, and take your time with this one.  I’m feeling particularly fulfilled as I sit to write, and I hope to convey the deep gladness I gained from the experience.

***

It was day three of the International Conference on Physician Health, in Boston.  I had anticipated this meeting giddily for nine months.  From the moment I heard the call for abstracts, through the iterative preparatory steps, to the final emails, texts, PowerPoints, and conference calls with collaborators, through the personal connections and learning, I was now positively beside myself with zeal.  It was everything I had hoped and more.  I was surrounded by colleagues from three continents, all gathered to share and unite around making our professional world more humane.  We explored ideas like awe, joy, mindfulness, empathy, presence, and vulnerability.  I had lived two glorious days in a cocoon of safety, love, and resonance.  I was among my people.

This day’s workshop focused on compassion, and aimed to tap its deepest reaches within each attendee.  The presenter prepared us for the exercise by describing his work with previous groups—CEOs breaking open in anger, shame, forgiveness, and finally compassion.  He asked that we hold the gravity of vulnerability with reverence and respect.  We understood the solemnness asked of us, and responded in kind.  This was the exercise:

On a blank 5×7 index card, write a personal story.  You will have five minutes.  The cards will be collected at your table, redistributed, and shared anonymously at another table.  Be aware that your writing may be shared aloud with the whole group, later in the exercise.  Instruction:  Write the story of a time in the past year that was really hard for you, when you suffered.  It could be personal or professional.

For a split second I felt a catching in my chest—‘Yikes!’  And in the next breath, ‘Bring it.’  I knew this tribe.  They would hold it for me, with me, no question.  And because I was also a tribe member, I would do it for them.  I looked forward to it, actually.  I wrote with surprisingly little effort, concisely yet in detail, about a particularly challenging relationship and my struggles with perfectionism.  How could my other relationships shine so brightly, feel so easy, and flow so freely, while this one so regularly caused me angst and turmoil?

At the end of five minutes my tablemates and I placed our cards in an envelope provided.  I felt oddly relieved, as though a great weight I carried all this year had been lifted.  The envelope was marked, then passed three or four times between tables, so we didn’t know where our cards ended up.  They were as letters in a corked bottle, cast into the ocean, released to an uncertain, but hopeful, fate.

Our presenter explained that at this time, the envelopes would normally be opened, and each of us would take one card and read it.  We were to hold it and its anonymous author in the space of compassion, then share with our tablemates.  We would help one another hold one another.  Then, if so moved, each table would choose one card to share with the larger group.  Our task was to connect, with ourselves and one another, to feel deeply now, to remind us how to do it out in the world.  This was where it would get real, we all knew.   And though he had warned us earlier about an unforeseen shortening of the workshop schedule, we did not see the abrupt end of the exercise coming.  He told us we would not have enough time to do the exercise justice, and so the envelopes would remain unopened this day.  He acknowledged the conflict we all felt, the urge to look.  But he stood firm that experiences like this cannot be rushed, and he respected the time constraints of the meeting.

The tension in the room was palpable, even as we all sat in silence.  It felt jarring, painful, anxious.  What would happen to the cards?  What about all that suffering contained in them, people’s hearts and lives scribed with intention to be seen, known, understood, and held?  Surely they would not just be thrown in the trash?  One colleague voiced so poignantly our core conflict:  We all wanted closure for this vulnerable exercise, and that need competed with honor for the time required to complete it.  Our leader gracefully acknowledged this truth, and solemnly held the space for us all to be present to its discomfort.

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.

I wondered what would physically become of the cards.  Would he take them home with him?  Would he burn them in a reverent ceremony of sorts?  I knew he felt responsible for us and our predicament.  Would he read each one, hold each of us and all of our suffering, all by himself?  I felt immediate compassion for him, and hoped that he would not take that route; none of us would want that for him.

I wanted to suggest that we be given the option of each pulling one card, to hold in compassion privately, as we left the workshop.   But we were spread out in a big room, feeling separated from one another rather than connected, and I felt sheepish.

Within a minute or so we had decided to collect the envelopes together, stand surrounding them as if around an altar, and offer a benediction of sorts.  I could not shake the urge to reach out, to take one person’s suffering and hold it for them, love them, send energy of compassion and solidarity to them, whoever they may be.  I realized also that this was exactly what I wanted for my card, for my suffering.  And now that we stood shoulder to shoulder, at least physically if not emotionally proximal, I felt more comfortable to speak.  “I really want for someone to take my card and hold it for me, and I really want to do that for someone.”  Another attendee immediately looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll do it.”  The group consented; each of us would take a card at random, if we wanted.  I pulled one from the third envelope from the top of the pile.  I held it to my chest and returned to my seat.  I forgot all about my own card, and my anxiety evaporated.  I no longer cared if anyone saw mine; I had released it.  My task was to hold my colleague’s sorrow with my own heart, and wish with my whole being for their peace and healing.

I’m so proud of all of us.  We attended to so many needs that morning, all with respect and kindness.  The presenter set the tone for the workshop from the beginning and we all understood the learning objectives: Practice opening up to let the healing in and practice the inner work of holding another’s suffering with your own.  Connect with our shared humanity.  We all learned an important lesson in flexibility, creativity, collaboration, and acceptance.  We held space like champions.

I’m proud of myself for finally speaking up, for asking for what I needed.  That I was met with such generosity and tenderness speaks to the remarkable power of mutual understanding and compassion.  I took a deep breath and read the card in my hands.  My colleague’s story was short, about the 5 year anniversary of his/her father’s death, and memories of loss and helplessness.  Tears came when I read it.  I hugged the card and said a prayer for its writer.  I’ll keep the card someplace safe, and eventually release it in some respectful, peaceful way.

I don’t know if anyone pulled my card.  It’s okay.  Just the hope that someone might have seen it and given it some consideration is enough.  I learned the lesson I needed: Offering my pain for someone else to hold a while, and accepting another’s sorrow to hold for them, constitutes the cycle of healing.  We are not here to go it alone.  We need one another in the best ways.

Holding the Space for Expectations Challenged

Ray Great Wall 2016

Those of you who follow this blog know that I meet regularly with a group of insightful and engaging medical students. I have written about them here and here. At our meeting last month, one of them described his recent rotation in China, and I invited him to share his experience here. I’m so grateful for this continued connection to physicians in training—it keeps me grounded. It reminds me that no matter how old and wise I may consider myself, I always have much to learn from others.

Enjoy, everybody:

 

Expectations. In the United States, we have come to have certain expectations for how things should be. A meal at burger joint should include a burger, with a side of fries and a Coke. When we check into a hotel, there should at least be a TV and a coffee maker with complimentary coffee. These have become essential (American) assumptions, and because we are the “best in the world,” our way is the best way.

Similarly, when you go see a doctor, there are certain expectations, both good and bad. You expect that it may take a few days to get an appointment. You expect a reminder prior to your appointment. You expect to wait a certain amount of time to see the doctor and to fill out a ton of paperwork. You expect the staff to be courteous. You expect to see a nurse first, and to wait again in an exam room until your doctor arrives. You expect the doctor will listen to all of your health problems closely, and offer helpful suggestions regarding imaging and medications you can take. You expect those prescriptions to be sent to your pharmacy, and that you can to pick them up after your appointment. You expect to get better.

What if your reality ended up very different from these expectations?

Last month, I went abroad to see what the healthcare system is like in China, at an academic teaching hospital in the nation’s capital of Beijing. After spending a year deeply entrenched in the clinical wards of the United States as a third-year medical student, learning from the best of the best doctors, I thought I knew what it meant to provide good medical care. I expected that I could teach them better ways of delivering care based on what I learned in America. I soon found out that I was the one who had a lot to learn.

To provide some perspective on just how different the healthcare system is in China, imagine this scenario, based on an amalgamation of different patient experiences that I witnessed:

You are sick and want to see a doctor. You wake up the next day at 5 in the morning so that you have enough time to take the subway to get to the hospital by 6. When you arrive, there are already 30 people in line ahead of you, and the specialist you want to see only gives out appointments for 25 people for his morning clinic today. You don’t end up getting an appointment.

You go into the doctor’s office when he arrives at 8, bursting in the door with 10 other people who are sick but were unable to get appointments. You fight for the doctor’s attention during his first patient’s appointment, and, luckily, you get an add-on appointment, for after his 25 other morning appointments. You sit in the waiting room until 12:30PM, when you are finally called in.

You see the doctor. He only has 5 minutes to spend with you. As he is doing your physical exam, his next patient enters the room before being called, and watches everything. The doctor says you need imaging, which you need to pay for and schedule yourself. You then need to pick up hard copies of the images and bring them to your next appointment, so that he can make a diagnosis. You also need some medical equipment, and he suggests shopping for it online. He says you may need to be hospitalized, but it may take 2 weeks to get a hospital bed spot, so you should sign up for the waiting list now. You get the imaging and medical equipment, the doctor makes a diagnosis, and you get better.

Your total cost for everything was less than $50.

Your gut reaction to this story may be, “this is madness!” You may feel that your expectations of healthcare delivery, based on your experiences in the United States, are very different from the care provided in China–not only different, but almost certainly better. At least, that was my gut reaction. I was appalled on my first day of clinic; my mind raced with questions: How do patients put up with this disregard for their time and rights to privacy and respect? How are doctors able to treat patients adequately without hearing the patients’ stories? Can patients have a good understanding of their medical condition in this system of care? It made me feel grateful for what we have in our current healthcare system back home, with better customer service, shorter wait times in the doctor’s office, and more privacy during the appointment.

However, take a second to reflect: is our healthcare system universally better? In this compiled scenario in China, you got seen by a specialist on the same day you got sick, which happens on a regular basis for patients familiar with how the hospital system works (even those unfamiliar with the system can still be seen within one or two days). Your overall costs were low and did not involve convoluted paperwork from third and fourth parties. And, most importantly, you were still able to get better. These are all things that hospitals in the United States hope to improve on. By the end of my first week in China, I realized that my gut reaction on the first day was irrational, stemming from discomfort with things I was not accustomed to. As I distanced myself from my premature judgment on what I was seeing, I found that the differences were not bad, just different. China has the challenge of providing healthcare to the largest patient population in the world, and with that, factors like cost containment and short visit times are prioritized. In the United States, we have also had to prioritize certain factors, specifically patient satisfaction, due to our cultural values and our legal system. In both countries, though, positive patient health outcomes are the highest priority.

Dr. Cheng asked me what three things I learned primarily from doing a clinical rotation abroad. First, different does not equal bad. While China and the United States do not have the same priorities for or access to healthcare, both have well-functioning healthcare systems. Second, withhold judgment from your expectations. Your gut reaction may not always be correct and may limit you from fully understanding things unfamiliar to you. Third, be grateful for what you have. Though our own healthcare system has its problems, we should be grateful for everything that works well, and we should not take it for granted.

Summer Series 2016: Holding the Space

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Well, hello again, friends! It’s been a while–again!  *sigh*

Sometimes things happen that we can’t quite explain… Like why, after writing 26 enthusiastic posts in 30 days, I could only manage to publish one thing in the ensuing 42 days?  How fascinating!  I’ve entertained several intersecting theories…  And while it’s been a fun and frustrating exercise in introspection, it is now time to let go the analysis, take what I’ve got, and move on.  I know I will integrate it all in the long run.

So today, I officially launch Healing Through Connection Summer Series 2016: Holding the Space.  For the rest of June, July, and August, I will explore the various meanings and applications of this concept, and what its practice teaches me.

To me, “Holding the Space” means slowing down. It means being with things the way they are, without rushing to criticize, blame, judge, intervene, reject, fix, suppress, resolve, deflect, escape, annihilate, deny, or ignore.  When we practice Holding Space, we allow more.  We tolerate better.  We find peace.  For an excellent description of the practice as it relates to caregiving, see here.

The concept has swirled in my mind almost nonstop these last few months. It’s triggered mostly when I see conflict and controversy, and also in times of transition, challenge, agitation, growth, and uncertainty.  I have referenced it in my writing before, sometimes using the actual words, other times alluding indirectly.  Here are some recent examples:

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

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

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/01/assumptions-and-appreciation/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/19/look-for-the-helpers/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/11/reconciliation-is-for-kids/

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/10/27/he-for-she-we-for-us/

My purpose in this series is to share personal reflections on Holding Space, as I grapple with important social, professional, and personal questions. As I wrote in my previous post, I may venture into controversial territory, but my intent is not to argue a particular position.  I wish, as always, to focus on relationships.

Please join me on this journey. Solitary reflection is helpful and necessary, but it’s almost always more fun to welcome companions on the expedition.

 

 

 

Playing My Part

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Hello again, friends! Feels good to be back…  3 weeks since my last post of the Blogging A to Z Challenge, holy cow!  At the end I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this!  One post a week, no sweat!’  …And then crickets…  How Fascinating!

Though I have not posted in three weeks, I have written like mad, mostly journaling. Today I suddenly realized how much I have missed corresponding with my friends on paper.  How long it’s been since I wrote by hand to someone other than myself!  As I sat this afternoon and wrote, on stationery, with colored gel pens and stickers, to some of my best friends, a tremendous sense of connection and gratitude filled me.  Much of this post was born of those spontaneous letters to my fellow conscious, cosmic journeyers.

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?

The A to Z Challenge showed me that I have the capacity to write often and much—and to produce better-than-crap results! It also taught me that I can take more risks with my writing, in both format and content.  Now I want to take my writing a little more seriously, lend more credence to my own abilities.  In the framework of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, I know my Why: to cultivate positive and constructive relationships in every realm of life.  This blog is another What to my Why.  But since the Challenge ended, I struggle with the How.

I think night and day about so many things:

  • My own individual relationships—spousal, parental, sibling, other familial; colleague, patient, student, friend, stranger.
  • Relationships I observe between others, and their impact on those of us around them.
  • Healthcare and medicine in general, and specifically at my own institution—miracles, bureaucracies, opportunities and pitfalls.
  • Leadership and organizational culture—examples of effective and ineffective models, and what makes them so.
  • Social justice and discourse—with an urge for movement toward acceptance, inclusion, mutual understanding, and cooperation.
  • Education, parenting and role modeling—integrity, walking my talk, inside and out.
  • Physician self-care and care of one another—individual and system issues, and their interface.

What am I called to affect? I live a conscious life in all these realms, or at least I try.  I have opinions and positions on various issues, some which I hold with deep conviction.  And I struggle with whether and how to express them—for what purpose?

Finally, I have an idea. Though I have opinions and positions that I hold strongly, I plan NOT to use this blog to promote those views.  There are plenty of people doing that already, a multitude of voices trying to win one another over, or, more precisely, trying to drive one another into silence with ever louder, brasher, and more vociferous language.  My voice can be one of moderation—of collaboration, connection—maybe a bridge for a few who seek one…  Or maybe just one stilt among many others, helping to hold up one such bridge.  I will strive not to criticize or proselytize, not to berate, blame, shame, incite, or inflame; and also not to concede or abstain.  I can, at the same time, hold my positions with conviction and passion, and also listen for the convictions and passions of others.  I can practice curiosity and openness.  I can question, explore, Hold the Space, and stand strong and tall, without feeling threatened.  I seek others who strive to do the same.

Voices of moderation are muted these days. The great orchestra of discourse has lost balance and harmony.  The most strident strings, horns, and drums play for their own promotion, rather than as a contribution to a symphonic collective.  The resulting dissonance makes us want to cover our ears and run away.  In order for a symphony to engage and inspire, each player must not only know her own part and play it well, but also listen carefully for other players and their movement.  Maybe we can all do this a little better: maintain our own distinct voices, while integrating with those around us.  The best orchestra functions as one entity, breathing and moving in a quintessentially integrated fashion.

My instrument is language. The past seven weeks have shown me my part in the online verbal orchestra.  This blog is where I will practice, record, and offer my contribution, not to overpower any others’ words, but to meet, align, and resonate.  The harmony of consonant contrast plays on, somewhere.  Maybe I can help find and amplify it, so more of us may enjoy the music of life among one another.

#AtoZChallenge: Yes, And!

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Some practices take a while to establish, and it’s worth.every.minute.

I first learned about “Yes, and” from my residency classmate, c.2001. She was taking an improv class in her spare time (a revelation in itself for me at the time—you can do that?).  One day after rounds, she came into the workroom eager to share this new learning.  I warily accepted her invitation to try it.  For those of you unfamiliar, the “Yes, and” exercise goes thusly, according to Wikipedia:

“Yes, and…” is a rule-of-thumb response in improvisational comedy that suggests a participant should accept what another participant has stated (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”).[1][2]

“Yes”

The “Yes” portion of the rule encourages the acceptance of the contributions added by others.[3] Participants in an improvisation are encouraged “to agree to the basic situation and set-up.” Thus, “By saying yes, we accept the reality created by our partners and begin the collaborative process.” [1]

“And ”

In addition to accepting the premise offer by others, a participant in an improvisation is expected to add new information into the narrative. Hence the phrase “Yes, And!”[1]

 

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?  I need a mirror!  I was distracted, trepidatious, reserved—less than an engaging partner.  Sadly, I think she left that interaction a bit deflated.  So sorry, Carol!

In August of 2003, I read an interview with Tina Fey.  [Hey, isn’t that AMAZING, that I can Google “tina fey interview 2003 yes and” and it pops right up??]  In it, she recalls, “A couple of times I’ve been called on to do things—jobs or whatever—where I’ve felt, ‘Maybe I’m not quite ready. Maybe it’s a little early for this to happen to me.’ But the rules are so ingrained. ‘Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward’ has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.” For whatever reason, perhaps primed by Carol’s invitation to try improv, this spoke to me, and I resolved to say Yes more often.  The very next day, I was invited to attend a luncheon at my church at the last minute, when another attendee had cancelled.  Normally I would have said no, thanks, and gone home.  I would not have wanted to overstep usual social boundaries, assume a position higher than my own (the luncheon was to honor benefactors).  AND, as I had nothing else going on that day, I thought of Tina Fey’s advice, and said yes.  I learned about all the people who give their time, talent, and treasure to help our faith community thrive.  I was humbled and grateful to be included.  Years later, I would give the keynote address at that annual event.

In 2005 I started working with my life coach, Christine. The “Yes, and” idea resurfaced again, this time as a practice in mindfulness.  Rather than saying, “I want to be in Colorado, but I am stuck in Chicago,” I redirected to say instead, “I want to be in Colorado, AND I am stuck in Chicago.”  The first was a straight-up complaint—a whine.  Changing the one word made all the difference, propelling me beyond the ‘stuck’ness.  After the ‘and’ statement, I intuitively accepted the current situation as it was, and a logical, sequential question arose: “So, what do I want to do now?”  In the following year, I moved (somewhat) past my resentment, feeling anchored in Chicago for the rest of my professional life, and embraced the opportunities a life here could offer.  The but-to-and modification played an important role in this attitude shift.  I was even able to apply it to my patient interactions, holding space for their stuck-ness and inviting them into new possibilities.

Fast forward to 2009, my first time at the Harvard Coaching Conference.  I had the enormous fortune to attend a presentation by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, based on their book, The Art of Possibility.  I had my picture taken with Mr. Zander, and soon became of disciple of the book’s teachings, including the practice of substituting ‘and’ for ‘but’ in daily vernacular.  ‘But’ implies limitation and scarcity.  ‘And,’ conversely, opens our minds to movement and possibility.  I would say that by this time, my Yes, And practice was almost second nature.

And, it was February of 2013 when everything truly gelled. I was offered the privilege of leading a group of internists in the Chicago area, in an innovative educational initiative—weekly board review webinars for practicing physicians.  The format was new to all of us, so we took an improv workshop to hone presentation skills and build the team.  My partner, Sean, and I engaged in iterative exercises to demonstrate the power of ‘No,’ ‘Yes, but,’ and finally, ‘Yes, and.’  You can try it yourself.  Get a partner, and whatever you say, your partner says, ‘No.’  Do that a few minutes, then switch to ‘Yes, but,’ then finally, ‘Yes, and.’  The first two responses have essentially the same effect—shutting down the conversation, tempting the initiator to disengage in exasperation.

When we got to ‘Yes, and,’ I could feel my anticipation rising. Where would this go, what positively outlandish ideas could we possibly come up with?  I understood Carol’s excitement at sharing an imminent journey of imagination and creativity.  Between Sean and me, we devised a plan to hitchhike to California through the Badlands and Yellowstone.  We would stop on the Golden Gate bridge after our car broke down and help tourists take pictures.  Then we would steal one of their cars and joy ride down to Jay Leno’s house, or some professional athlete’s house, by way of Candlestick Park, I can’t remember for sure.  We would somehow convince the celebrity to drive with us, in his car, back to Chicago, taking selfies along the way, and make a presentation to our colleagues about the importance of primary care…  Or something like that!  I patted myself on the back; I am a Yes, And pro.

Our webinar series is now well into its second two-year cycle, and the Yes, And approach has guided us well through changes in communication, marketing, staffing, and expansion.

I’m reminded of a strategy that that Dr. Phil McGraw’s team implements when they brainstorm content for his show: “We love every idea for fifteen minutes.” That is the essence of Yes, And!  Take any idea, love it, embrace it, flesh it out, water it, pour Miracle Grow on it, throw it around, bounce it off the walls, crack it open, dissect it, sit on it, taste it!  You never know what will come of it until you let loose your imagination—YES, AND it!

Yes, And can be applied in every conversation, every relationship, every decision. Yes.  And?…

#AtoZChallenge: Xerophyte People

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Xerophyte: a plant structurally adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply esp. by means of mechanisms that limit transpiration or that provide for the storage of water.

AC cactus 2016

Photo courtesy of Cyndie Abbott, Green Valley, Arizona, 2016

 

Water is essential for growth and survival—of plants and animals alike. So how is it that some plants can not only survive, but thrive and even reproduce, with so little water?  On top of that, they also provide beauty, habitation, and even sustenance for others.  Their short-lived flowers splash color onto monochromatic landscapes.  Regional animals are adapted to live nestled among some xerophytes’ barbs.  Survival programs tell us to seek these plants as a source of essential hydration when stranded in the dessert.

Humans share many of these tough flora’s adaptive qualities. We evolved as omnivores, able to eat most things that grow in nature.  Our big forebrains allowed us to cultivate plants to eat.  We learned to capture, then herd, animals for our own use.  We have come so far as to alter and control our environments, in order to live in places where nature may never have intended.

But the more interesting parallel between xerophyte plants and Xerophyte People is resilience.  If we consider metaphorical water for human life, many things come to mind: joy, security, connection, purpose, meaning, love.  Think of all the people who live with little or none of these things.  Think of those who once had these things, and then had them forcibly taken away, often indefinitely—by war, abuse, illness, death.  In medicine, we witness this kind of suffering regularly.  Our hearts break alongside those of our patients and their families.  But it’s not always forever.  In primary care, where I have the privilege of knowing patients over long periods, I have also celebrated remarkable reversals.  New relationships, revelations, births, treatment innovations—you never know what will happen to turn the tide.

So what keeps us hanging on? Like plants, maybe we figure out ways to prevent further loss—limit transpiration.  Thick skin and prickly spines keep us protected.  Only the very persistent or the specially equipped can penetrate our defenses.  But more important, we have adapted to store what we need.  Even if we cannot readily identify or articulate it, something keeps us going.  Maybe it’s hope, remembrance, or some core value or aspiration we have yet to realize—some inner pilot light that never goes out.  Some might call it the human spirit.  Whatever it is, I stand in reverence of its mystery, its utterly saving presence.

To all the Xerophyte People in our world, I say as Glennon Doyle Melton does:  Carry On, Warriors.

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Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico, June 2015

#AtoZChallenge: Withhold Judgment

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My brain is so tired. All month I have racked it trying to figure out what to write next, how to render it most authentically, and finally get it out looking close enough to how I intended.  On top of that, I have also engaged in multiple exchanges on Facebook around gender identity, public restroom use, vaccine rationale, and presidential politics.  It really has been shang nao jin, as we say in Chinese—literally wounding the mind.  I realize these are all activities that I choose, and none of them have significant bearing on the world at large.  And, I would do it all again.  My mental exhaustion is the hurt-so-good kind, like the muscle soreness after a particularly strenuous workout, when I know I have pushed myself to my limit and maybe extended it a little.  The writing and conversations are ways that I engage with my world and practice what I preach—open-mindedness, curiosity, and cultivating connection.

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.  Here are some illustrations from the past week:

I shared this post on my Facebook page on Saturday.  I agree with the author’s sentiments, basically that discrimination is wrong and we should open our minds and bathrooms to all people.  I also thought her writing was cogent and forceful.  One of my friends pointed out her name calling, as she labeled supporters of the North Carolina HB2 legislation, and people who boycott Target as a result, as hateful.  He then asserted that the left “can’t argue a point without calling people who disagree with them hateful,” or at least they choose not to. At once I see both sides generalizing in ways that preclude any possibility of meaningful mutual understanding.

After this I became more sensitive to name calling in articles I read. Even ones with relevant data and useful information can be tainted, as I found here, in which the writer calls bigots the same people that the previous author called hateful.  Why must we stereotype and label like this?  Is it just to get published, for attention?  Can we not convey our message just as effectively without all this vitriol?

Finally I read and shared this article, in which the author does not call anyone names directly, but writes a brilliant and searing piece of satire that also inflames and incites.  I suppose that is the point of satire, after all?  It was the comments on this last article that really drove home to me the perilous state of assumptions and judgment that drive many of our interactions these days.  If you support this law, you’re hateful.  If you oppose it, you’re irresponsible.  Perform one act that is, superficially, inconsistent with your professed beliefs, you are forever a hypocrite.  Commit one lapse in judgment and you are instantly unworthy of respect, now or in the future.  Snap judgments can degenerate our encounters to a series of sound bites of rhetoric and aggression.  They seriously inhibit, if not completely destroy, our connections, and they consign us to echo chambers of isolation.

The doctor who rushes me through my 15 minute appointment for a sinus infection, after making me wait 30 minutes already, is uncaring and just wants to make more money. Actually, she just spent the last 45 minutes telling her patient of 10 years that he has metastatic cancer and answering his questions, and she is anxious to get to her son’s school play tonight, his first lead role.

The woman who yells at the receptionist and makes a scene with the nurse is just another angry, entitled patient. Actually, her son was killed by a drunk driver last year, she lost her job and her home, and her mother is dying.

Fellow blogger and talented artist Jodi posted this beautiful piece today, including these words:

Skip the religion and politics,

head straight to the compassion.

everything else is a distraction.

— talib kweli

It really spoke to me, because compassion lives at the core of human connection. If we can remember compassion for one another more often, no matter our circumstances and state of mind otherwise, we can probably also remember to Withhold Judgment and listen for the rest of the other person’s story.  Listening more, yelling less, moving slower to the keyboard, showing up in person, asking more questions for understanding—these are the practices of Withholding Judgment.  Please, let us make the effort; it may save us all.