I woke up this morning exhausted. I tossed and turned most of the night. Not worried about anything in particular. Merely everything in general. And I nursed a severe case of “bad attitude.”
As I looked in the bathroom mirror, I squelched the urge to yell at my reflection — “I just don’t care.”
My morning ritual of reading the news didn’t help either. Today, like every other day this past year, people were losing their jobs, their homes, their right to vote, their loved ones, even their lives. Yet, in my mind, the state of the world recently became someone else’s problem. At my age, I had abdicated all responsibility for the world.
This is not a good attitude for someone who reads numerous, highly personal, heart-felt essays and poems about dying, death, grief every single day. Authors entrust me with their deepest feelings. I take my role as Grief Dialogues editor seriously, knowing that my acceptance of their creative grief work can be a validation of all they endure.
It’s also not a good feeling for someone who has friends all over the world who reach out for grief comfort. Some days the conversations are brief. Other days one call can take the better part of a day. When I fall short, as I often do, I receive not-so-gentle feedback like “I’m surprised at your reaction to my loved one’s death, given your knowledge of the varied reactions to loss.” Ouch.
And it is not healthy for someone who describes her organization as Performing Arts for a More Compassionate World of Health Care.
So, when faced with writing this blog post on Compassion, I found myself struggling to find the right words. Who am I to tell doctors to be more compassionate, even if it means they will be more profitable? Can I honestly tell caregivers to help their patients feel good about who they are when they are dying, even to increase the caregiver’s patient experience rating? Why would I ask social workers to help their clients discover their inherent dignity?
In short, I am fighting my own battle against Compassion Fatigue, a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. And I have precious little time to waste on such self-centered nonsense.
As I scrolled the pages of her book on my Kindle, I remembered something I read just yesterday. Dr. Zitter attended a conference a few years ago, Mindfulness in the ICU, run by Dr. Mitchell Levy, Professor of Medicine at Brown University, among many other credentials. Dr. Zitter describes Dr. Levy as “an ICU hero doctor.”
He had started lecturing about the lack of mindfulness among physicians, which he believed contributed to their problems in caring for their patients and for themselves. He believed that teaching mindfulness to clinicians would enhance their abilities to serve their patients by being able to hold space, slow down, and really listen. And he also postulated that if physicians learned to soothe themselves in their work environments—especially places like the fast-paced ICU—everyone, patient and physician, would do better.
Soothe themselves? Wait. Is Dr. Levy saying that physicians need to show compassion to themselves? I needed to know more so I googled Dr. Levy and found a YouTube video of his 2014 Keynote Presentation “Dignity with Death: Applying the Practice of Mindfulness to Improve End-of-Life Care.”
His presentation hit home for me when he said “We all long for certainty. It’s not comfortable to dwell in uncertainty.” He also told the audience to work with that discomfort by being present, willing to face and experience life as it is. “You may feel helpless,” he said, “but not hopeless” when you truly sense your own “natural worthiness.”
Uncertainty? There’s a term that resonates with me. In fact, in pandemic 2021, who among us does not feel uncertainty? Uncertain about the present. Uncertain about the future. Not even really sure what happened in the past.
Clearly my compassion issue lies in my current world of “uncertainty.” Like so many other people during the pandemic, I feel my life is progressing in some ways and in limbo in others. My husband and I currently live almost 5,000 miles from our loved ones. We live in isolation in the Costa Rican jungle with little social contact except through Zoom. We’ve accomplished much during these past 15 months, but at what toll? We made decisions that kept us here. Were they the right decisions? Who knows?
When I saw Mary Pohlmann’s artwork titled “Compassion” I immediately wanted to use it as the illustration for a blog post on Compassion. I had used her artwork “Eyes” as the foundation for my blog post “The Eyes Have It” and was certain that people clicked on my blog post just to see her beautiful artwork.
It wasn’t until self-doubt about my own feelings of compassion crept in that I read the list of flowers in her piece. Not only the flowers themselves spoke to me but their meanings offered even more significance. See if you agree:
Ithuriel’s Spear – Love of Others
Freesia – Hope
Marshmallow – Humanity
Allspice – You are worthy
Bleeding Heart – Compassion
Evening Primrose – You are Safe
Impatiens – Tolerance
Scottish Primrose -Unconditional Love and Compassion
Oregon Grape – Trust
Showy Lady Slipper – Emotional Balance
Surprise Lily – Self-Forgiveness
Scabiosa – Gentle Healing
Bird of Paradise – Self-Acceptance
Blue Green – The Color of Compassion
Green – The Color of Hope
Did you notice a pattern, a balance if you will, of flowers that demonstrate compassion for others and flowers that speak to the self? I saw it for the first time today. Perhaps I need to find some Surprise Lilies in the jungle today.
Now you’ve heard my own Compassion Confession. I’m flawed, as we all are. And today I will give myself a break.
You deserve one too.