“I attribute my success to this—I never gave or took any excuse” ~ Florence Nightingale.
I have to confess that it took me a while to learn to respect Florence Nightingale. I had read the story of the ‘Lady with the lamp’, so I knew something about her, growing up. In nursing school, they didn’t teach us much about her, only mentioning her in passing. One of our instructors would sometimes say, ‘Of course, when I trained with Florence Nightingale…’ so that we would know how old she was. The image I had of old Florence, was of a woman who didn’t do very much, just wandered her hospital tent at night with her lamp aloft.
It wasn’t until I returned to school some thirty years later, that I began to get a glimpse of the woman. She had defied her family and the times, choosing to have a career rather than husband and family. She was of the ‘upper class’, privileged to have an education, and as a child loved mathematics and science. After receiving a ‘call from God’, she trained as a nurse, and eventually founded a nursing school armed with a clear vision of what it took to be a nurse. After her time in the Crimea, she used statistics to defend her contention that more soldiers died due to preventable diseases than from their war wounds, leading to radical improvements in sanitation.
I am not sure why we didn’t hear more about her in nursing school. There were some who revered her though. On the first nursing ward that I worked, the nursing ‘Sister’ (a throwback to the times when nursing was a religious calling, in the US we call them Nurse Managers) had quotes from Florence posted on the walls. One quote warned us that ‘Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on the sick or the well’, a reminder to keep our voices down. Of course, Florence had more than loud conversations in mind, she also disapproved of squeaking shoes and loud crinolines! Perhaps my nursing instructors felt Florence too old-fashioned to be included in our curriculum. And yet so much of her basic reasoning is borne out by science today. Noise has been found to have an adverse effect on patient outcomes. And hand hygiene is still one of the strongest weapons against infection.
I recently heard the story of another trailblazer. Bill Pinkney is the first African American to circumnavigate the globe solo. In the 1990’s he sailed around the world, a journey of 32,000 miles that took him 22 months, sailing around all five capes. He had intended his journey to be an inspiration to his grandkids. He ended up sharing his adventure with over 30,000 school kids through radio transmissions and videos that he would mail from various ports along the way. He called his boat (a ‘spinnaker’) The Commitment, a tribute to the importance of sticking to your word.
I suspect he too is a man who, like Florence, accepted no excuses. I must admit that I found Florence’s quote about never giving or taking excuses to be quite intimidating, when I first heard it. It seems to fit in with the concept of never giving up, of seeing things through to the end. Bill Pinkney’s memoir is entitled: ‘As long as it takes’, along the same theme.
When you are raised with values like those, it can be hard sometimes to recognize that it is not always healthy to stick to things just for the sake of it. Sometimes we need to quit, whether it is a relationship, a routine, or a project that is out of hand. When you can hear your mother’s voice in your head telling you to ‘keep right on to the end of the road’, it may be very difficult to call a halt, to give yourself permission to make a necessary change. When you are persisting for all the wrong reasons it is ok to reevaluate and reprioritize, to change course without excuses.
I have begun to reevaluate Florence’s attitude. Perhaps I was wrong to think that she meant that she never messed up, never had to apologize or make excuses. Perhaps instead, it was that she just didn’t care what people thought. Take me or leave me! It can be quite tiresome to listen to excuses. I know I can get very impatient when listening to nursing students who can find everyone to blame except themselves when they are not successful. Not making excuses is the essence of accountability, of accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
This Friday morning, with the strange fractals of an impending migraine challenging my writing, I am inspired by people of strong convictions. But it is good to remember that we don’t have to change the world, or sail around it single-handedly to make a difference. It may be that our gift is to be a good listener, or a generous giver. And sometimes it is ok to just say no, without excuses, when we need to take a break.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!