“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” ~ Epictetus.
We are living through an amazing time. There are eras in your life that are special. When I started in nursing school in England in the 70s, I knew absolutely no one else in my starting cohort, I knew no one in the program or who worked in the Hospital. OK, there was the lady who worked the lobby of the Nurses’ Residence who knew my father. But we didn’t find that out until much later.
I had finished high school in Jamaica some months before, so I was already feeling dislocated, trying to adjust to the British way of life, of speech, of weather. Schools of Nursing in those days were based mostly in hospitals (a local University had started a Bachelor’s of Nursing program the previous year, but we soon learned to look down our noses at them!), and student nurses were required to live on premises. The first weeks were pretty hectic. I remember being lined up to receive vaccinations (I imagine we were told what they were for, but we didn’t question much). We soon settled into a routine, making friends, only two of whom I am still in contact with. But I remember that feeling of commonality. We were all novices together. We were all facing the same challenges together.
I still remind nursing students of that fact today. They may not have to live in a nursing residence together, but they will have more in common with the other students in their cohort than even with their family. The same due dates for care plans and papers; the same getting up before dawn to be on time for clinicals; the same weekly exams and quizzes. It is a unique time when people you may never have known before suddenly become your life-line when your car breaks down, or you lose your notes, or you left your watch at home.
When you emigrate to a strange land, as you tiptoe around your new environment, it is the sound of a familiar accent that can ground you, can help you to find your way. It is not by chance that groups of immigrants tend to move into an area and make it their own (how many China Towns are there in the world?). When you are able to go to the store and buy familiar food, speak in your own language, you feel at home even in a strange land. Jamaicans will find Jamaicans wherever they go, even in Alaska! And from that common place of birth spring a host of common lived experiences, comforting, reassuring.
The uniqueness of the current experience is that we are sharing it with so many other people on the globe at almost the same time. And the scary thing is that even those parts of the globe that have not yet been touched will unfortunately go through it sooner or later. Never have the words ‘I know what you mean’ been so accurate. Even though the experience for each of us may be different, the daily reality of staying physically distanced, of being confined, of rethinking daily routines is common to us all. This, my friends, is an empathy-building exercise. We may not be able to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, but we can try them on.
I am one of the fortunate ones, able to complain about struggling with the challenges of on-line teaching while still getting a paycheck. Knowing people who have died of Covid while I stay healthy. Hearing from close friends who are facing the enemy in the hospital with limited armor. Being able to count my blessings every day.
This common battle that we all wage is causing us to reevaluate our priorities. As I go through my week I usually text words and phrases to myself (Me, in my contacts. Not on my favorites list, funnily enough!), and yesterday that word was essential. It had been used in a sentence the previous day (perhaps, these days are running into each other) by Governor Cuomo. He had been asked what he had to say to those protestors who ‘wanted to go back to work’. His answer was simple: let them go apply for a job as an essential worker. There are so many people whose jobs we take for granted, and all of a sudden they have taken center stage as ‘essential workers’. And even though most of them are reluctant heroes, the very nature of their current job makes them vulnerable and fearful, the rest of the world has had to acknowledge just how much we depend upon them.
Of course I think of my own profession first. I have often complained that although Nurses are rated number one in terms of integrity (according to a Gallup poll, 18 years in a row), how about in terms of respect, in terms of value? In a few short months, a microscopic pathogenic virus has done what decades of published literature could not do. It drew attention to the selfless, compassionate, tireless, dedication that nurses have brought to the bedside for centuries. Physicians may have the same qualities, but they have always been respected (the mere name Doctor makes you stand up and pay attention). I believe Covid-19 has become a game changer, has forged a new paradigm for nurses.
But there are whole hosts of under-appreciated, under-paid workers who also must get their due: environmental workers (aka housekeepers, janitors); garbage collectors; supermarket workers; laundry workers, farmers, food preparers and more. And we cannot forget those first responders, those who are on the literal front lines, first exposed. There are so many people to whom we are indebted, because the work they do is essential.
It has been easy to laugh at ourselves, at those things we thought essential just a few short months ago. They mostly relate to our vanity, our public appearance. They are mostly peripheral, superficial and artificial. And for many people in many parts of the world, those things we held so precious don’t even exist. We are being force-fed lessons in humility and empathy, learning to reprioritize what is of value in our life.
I must close this week with the voice of my father echoing in my head: Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family. May you have enough to get you through this special time. May you and your loved ones be safe. And may we all emerge wiser, more patient, and more appreciative of the essential things of life.