Weekly Photo Challenge: Spare

Spare:

  1. (adjective) Additional to what is required for ordinary use.
  2. (adjective) Elegantly simple.
  3. (verb) To refrain from harming.

Version 2

At first glance, sand dunes appear simple. The beach grass provides strength to the sand dunes so the dunes themselves can protect the coastal communities from water intrusion – thus, sparing inland areas from damage. Beach development and the uninformed trampling of beachgoers has led to destruction of 84% of the dunes in the Hampton/Seabrook areas of New Hampshire.

Spare

One Flower at a Time

In 1972, MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz posed the question: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” In chaos theory, this question came to be known as the butterfly effect. In layman’s terms – how much of an impact can a simple, routine activity (such as a butterfly flapping it’s wings) have on a larger scale? And, if it does have an impact, can we predict when and where the outcomes will be seen?

In nursing, we don’t have a radar that shows us the whirlwind influence of our proverbial flapping-of-wings. We see our patient that is right in front of us and though we can romanticize about how we’ve made a difference once they have left our care, it’s hard to imagine that our seemingly mundane daily tasks have any lasting effects because there are so many factors that are immeasurable and intangible.

Realistically, you can’t follow the air pattern from a single butterfly to a typhoon that is millions of miles away, just as you can’t follow your patient home to observe whether they learned from your patient teaching or quantify if their gratitude increased because they were inspired by your compassion.

I spent five years working in mental health. During that time, I saw many patients struggling with the chronicity of their illness through repeated hospitalizations and volatile behavior. I spoke to them with patience and treated them with respect, but they often associated me with the negative experience that they were struggling with. They swore at me. They called me names. They threatened me. Sometimes, they attempted to act on their threats. I don’t blame them. After all, it’s not my place to determine how much value they should place on my efforts.

Many times, I thought: how can I continue doing this when all of my efforts appear to be futile? I try to mentor them on appropriate management of their emotions and symptoms, but so many of them keep requiring this almost-barbaric control of being locked in a building so that they remain safe. What quality of life is that?

It felt like a game of Russian roulette, except there’s only one chamber that is NOT loaded and that’s the lucky patient that gets better and lives a great life. I never see them again and I probably don’t think about them because I’m too busy cleaning up the mess of the next unfortunate person pulling the trigger.

Don’t get me wrong – there were countless moments that were very uplifting. There were people that were genuinely thankful. One patient burst into tears and hugged me for getting her a cake because she said that her family stopped acknowledging her birthday. One time I sang Bohemian Rhapsody with five of my patients because they wanted me to help them cheer up one of their peers. (I’m no Freddie Mercury, but it worked.) I received letters, cards, and drawings from patients thanking me for being present and caring through their moments, days, weeks, or months of tumult. If they did not come back to the hospital, I usually never heard from them again. I had to rely on the hope that they were flourishing, but it still felt like the impression that I made on my patients was both transient and fleeting.

As I sat in the nurse’s station one day, in the throes of an existential crisis, I saw a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs taped to the wall. Someone had highlighted the bottom two categories of the pyramid – physiological needs and safety. That’s when I realized that my efforts were not without merit. Providing the most basic needs can be the catalyst for our patients to progress towards self-actualization.

Scientists did not intend for chaos theory to become an inspirational belief that we can shape history through our actions. In fact, Lorenz sought to deconstruct the notion that there is certain cause-and-effect in nature because he found that the smallest factors are too imprecise to accurately link to one specific result. If one Brazilian butterfly can cause a Texas tornado, who’s to say which butterfly of the millions that inhabit the earth is responsible?

So, what if I turn my focus from the hypothetical tornado across the world to the tangible movement of my own fluttering wings? After all, just because a flower blooms for a limited amount of time does not negate the fact that it needs the butterfly to pollinate it. Through this symbiotic relationship, the butterfly is provided the sustenance that it needs and the flower can reproduce and bloom year after year. Likewise, I have found fulfillment through the resiliency of my patients. And through this notion it became less important to me that I change the world and more important that I positively impact the life of the person that is before me, as they are, in this moment.

Chaos

The Stranger Within

IMG_4666Each night I lay in the exact place that you first told me you loved me. I occupy the same space, but I am not the same.

That was almost a decade ago. It should come as no surprise that 3,650 some odd days provides ample space and circumstance for individual evolution. Each moment, saturated with inevitability, seeps into our core while we pay no mind. The subtlety of change sneaks in, uninvited yet blindly accepted.

I feel the ambivalence of nostalgia often – the oscillation between grasping for memories too distant to pull into the now, and the calming assurance that some day I may reach for this one in the same way. I do this not only with people, but also experiences, emotions, even sounds. If you have ever heard a song that resonates so deeply at one time in your life, but later hums along meaninglessly; if you’ve ever wished to reconnect with an old friend as if you were still 16, but soon realize that unfamiliarity has replaced the laughter and tears you’ve shared, you understand.

These sublime instances will always fade into insignificance without our blessing. We have no choice in our acquiescence because the person that was once captivated by another person, experience, emotion, or song is ceaselessly transforming into a new entity within each fleeting moment. We ignore change until enough unique nuances culminate into a form who’s presence can no longer be denied. That is where our choice comes in – we can reject this unwelcomed stranger or reserve judgment and greet our new selves, knowing that we will be asked to face this choice again and again regardless of our decision.

For five years I ignored the insidious alterations within myself and resisted this stranger until I made choices that were not aligned with the person that I believed myself to be. Despite my defiance, the stranger carried on as strangers do, living its life unabashedly free of my approval. For months, I did not fight it. Like a child who fears the unknown of darkness, I lay motionless with the comforter pulled tightly over my face until every muscle in my body ached from immobility. I deluded myself into the fallacy that this was my existence now – forever hiding while the stranger wore my clothes, walked around my house, lived my life. In this new space, I heard muffled I love you’s; this time, from unfamiliar voices that spoke without conviction. I could not cry because I was terrified that the stranger would hear me and its apathy made me uneasy. Even worse, removing the comforter would mean confronting this invader and acknowledging that it was my own carelessness that allowed its entry in the first place.

When the numbness of inaction became too tedious, I revealed myself to the stranger. I impatiently tried to discern its motives. I lectured it about the consequences of entitlement and nefarious behavior. I hoped that I could agitate the stranger, disturb the ease in which it had settled in, demand it to leave me alone. But its presence was resolute and I submitted to that determination – a prisoner now allegiant to its captor. I proved my obedience by embracing its sins as my own, whipping my own back and denying myself of sustenance, all under the guise of self-preservation. Meanwhile, change continued its unwavering quest towards infiniteness.

Over the years, many people have tried to release me from the chains of self-judgment. However, they often did so through validation of my inadmissible actions or by admonishing the people I affected by them. I vehemently denied both.

Then, one night, the bold statement: “You have to forgive yourself.” My best friend dropped me off at my house after yet another night of fun that ended with me in tears, desperately searching for answers to questions that I refused to ask. I collapsed into bed, into this very space where our vulnerability became a shared communion, and I remembered the peace of surrender. “You have to forgive yourself,” I repeated. Here I can pardon myself because I am new.

No longer do the pangs of nostalgia wash over me as I lay in this space. The memory is there, but just as the resounding song loses its meaning and friends become unknown, this too is devoid of the vivid emotion once attached to it. As I reflect, I do not strive to relive those days because I finally understand that it is futile to experience a stranger’s narrative, even if that stranger is yourself.