“Stories teach us empathy. They reveal to us ourselves in the skins of others.” ~ Justin Simien.
Last week, in the middle of a Zumba session, the music changed from a Latin focus to good old-fashioned rock and roll. Soon we were rocking around the clock and twisting the night away. I remembered that before I was learning to do the ska in Jamaica, I had learned to do the twist. I have a clear memory of watching a new sensation, was it the Earwigs? No, the Beatles, in living black and white on the ‘telly’, and I was twisting with my older sisters in the living room.
Little did I know that this group of Liverpudlians were tapping in to the sound of African-American rock and roll, mimicking the guitar riffs of Chuck Berry and the falsetto of Little Richard. Meanwhile, the Rolling Stones were following the blues tradition of the Deep South, listening to little known musicians (at the time) like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. At a time when Jim Crow still ruled in a segregated USA, these young white aspiring rock stars were idolizing, studying, mimicking and covering the music of African American musicians.
When I heard that the amazing gymnast Simone Biles announced she was pulling out of competing in the Olympics, and the word ‘twisties’ entered our vocabulary, it got me thinking about the world of a competitive athlete, and in particular, the gymnast. Can you imagine if, every day at work, your every move needed to be perfect, and it was scrutinized, shot from every angle, and judged? As a nurse, it takes a degree of confidence, expertise and comfort in your own skin to be able to perform certain nursing skills when being observed. Recently, as we have seen repeated views of shots being administered, I have been intensely critical of the techniques of those giving the shots. I may have had to perform nursing tasks while being observed by family members, but never have I had to do it while being filmed by the paparazzi, so maybe I shouldn’t be so critical!
Most of us are not so comfortable being observed on the job. There are studies that show that when a family is allowed to be in the room during a resuscitation attempt following a cardiac arrest (Code Blue is one term for the dramatic rescue operation), the benefits outweigh the possible harm. In other words, being there to observe as the ‘Code Team’ perform drastic and invasive procedures to try to restore life is actually beneficial for the family, even when their loved one doesn’t make it. But you have a hard time convincing those on the healthcare team that this is true. A Code is usually a messy event, even in the best of times. As members of the team shout orders at each other and grab for medications and equipment, it can appear quite disorganized. Outcomes are not always assured, things do not always go smoothly, the patient may die. How could this chaotic environment reassure a family? But from the standpoint of the family, being led outside to sit and wait is torture, being a part of the action allows them to see that everything was tried, no matter how messy, and they were a part of their loved one’s last moments.
But if the team was being judged on degree of difficulty, on landing the dismount perfectly, on flying through the air and performing multiple complex twists and turns, how would they score? As we watch athletes performing, we are all critics. The sprinter who pulled up too soon; the hurdler who tripped before the first jump; the batons that are not passed perfectly in the relay; we judge them all as if we could do better. Most of us have very little idea of what the life of an athlete is like, the intense training, the discipline, the pain, the sacrifice. And yet we judge.
I can’t say that my family are fanatics when it comes to sports, even though my father was an athlete in high school and university. My mother’s skill at sewing converted one of her ‘slips’ into a pair of running shorts for him! In later years my mother loved to watch the pole-vault event. In fact, she may have suggested to a group of ladies that she had been a pole-vaulter in her youth! She thought the introduction of the landing mattresses was kind, allowing the vaulters to bounce after flying through the air, rather than hit the dirt, like those high jumpers! She was a very sympathetic observer!
This year we have seen high profile athletes demonstrating vulnerability, and admitting to mental anguish at the burden of expectations placed upon them (often at a very young age). It is not strange that these brave athletes are mostly female, and non-white. The public has tolerated (and maybe even admired) the temper tantrums of (mostly) white male athletes, and been much harsher in its criticism of females demonstrating equivalent emotional outbursts.
Even more significantly, Simone and others have allowed the concept of mental health to be openly discussed, at a time when many who suffer from mental illness do not feel comfortable sharing their own pain. And though many of us cannot relate to losing our place in mid-air while spinning, we have all had those moments of feeling lost, of having a hard time dealing with grief, or insecurity, or self-doubt.
This Friday morning I hope you are making sure to take care of your own mental health, while being empathetic to the lives of others. We can all practice withholding criticism when we don’t know another’s story. We can honor the twisting path that others have taken to make it straight for those who follow. And if you feel like trying out as a pole-vaulter, go for it! But make sure the cushion is there to soften the fall!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!