“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov.
I don’t remember learning about ‘therapeutic communication’ when I was in nursing school forty years ago. Of course, some concepts have earned names which change over time, but being taught how to respond to patients, especially those with mental health problems, is not one that I recall. I do, however, remember the advice given to me when I had to study to take my ‘boards’, the certification exam required to become a Registered Nurse in Florida. First I was told to pay attention to the mental health section of the book, because ‘everyone in America is crazy’ (not judgmental at all!). Then I was told that when practicing multiple choice questions, I should always pick the answer that ended with a question mark. I guess it is not just present generation nursing students that are looking for short cuts to success. The reason why you want to choose a question as an answer, is because it encourages further conversation, the ‘open-ended question’.
Another useful communication tool to learn, is the art of ‘active listening’. This is not as easy as it sounds. Most of us are programed to automatically reply when people are talking. We are particularly good at offering unsolicited advice, which we teach nursing students is the opposite of therapeutic. That is not our role, and it may actually be harmful. But to sit and listen, and demonstrate that you are present (authentically present, not checking your texts, or tapping your leg) and giving another person space to express themselves, is healing. I remember my father once sharing with me how he had ruined a conversation with a church member by glancing at his watch as she spoke. ‘I mustn’t keep you any longer,’ she told him, and he could not convince her that he was not in a hurry. We sometimes turn meaningful sentiments into a joke: ‘I’m here for you’ has to be sincere, or else it sounds trite.
There have been times when silence has been remarkable. Most of us remember the strangeness of the sky after September 11th, 2001. The absence of air traffic overhead, no contrails, no criss-crossing flight paths, was unreal. On top of the shock of the acts of violence, it created a feeling of unease. On the other hand, the silence after a hurricane passes through, before the generators kick in, depending on your neighborhood, can be strange. The sound of traffic is missing, as roads may be blocked by downed trees. Sometimes even the birdsong has paused, as birds removed themselves from harm’s way. But in that pause before life picks up once more, the silence can be restful.
We all remember the unusual but relaxing silence of lockdown. Again, the traffic sounds were missing, it almost seemed as if the planet was holding its breath. Had the pandemic managed to do what climate policy could not? Had we actually slowed down global warming by reducing travel and consumption? I am sure that we have made up for it since. Many of us world travelers were shocked to discover we were able to survive without frequent trips out of town, or out of country.
I recently heard a scientist talking about the harm that fossil fuels do, not only to our climate and planet, but to human health. There are so many respiratory and cardiac problems caused by environmental pollution, that he proposed to have healthcare costs built in to the price of fossil fuels, to discourage their use and incentivize the use of greener, healthier sources of energy. We often don’t realize the direct correlation between climate and health.
In another piece, a researcher was talking about global warming and its effects on health. We are used to hearing about the danger to vulnerable people when the temperature goes up, as it did so dramatically this summer. But the danger is not only to the older adults who may not have air conditioning and may become dehydrated. Apparently, the risk of premature labor for pregnant women increases by 8% for every ten degrees the temperature goes up. And that number is almost double for African American mothers.
We may not see the urgency, but scientists do, and they are ringing the alarm. Climate change is bringing severe weather, melting ice caps, and changing the ecology of the planet as we speak. And yet most of us somehow feel as if there is nothing we can do. But we can make small changes, we have choices in the way we shop, in the products we use, and in recycling rather than replacing.
It is time for us all to be more therapeutic in our decisions, to be more mindful of the impact that our actions have, if we want to preserve this planet of ours for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. As citizens of the world, we need to stay informed, in order to understand the consequences of our actions and inaction. As they say, if you are not a part of the solution then you are the problem!
This Friday morning I hope you get the opportunity to participate in active listening, whether it is to a person who just needs you to hear them, or it is the sound of nature struggling to survive. I hope you have people around you who are therapeutic, who provide a healing space for you to grow. And I hope you can start one good habit that contributes to a healthy planet (reusable grocery bags is one place to start!).
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!