The details have been changed, but the story is true. A physician I know goes to work each day by 7:30 a.m. He is a confident, competent leader in every way within his clinic. But each night, he goes home to a spouse who is losing steam in every way. Diagnosed with a chronic condition, she is growing increasingly weak and dependent. He asks her how she is, and she begins to tell the truth: her fear, her loneliness, her frustration, and above all else, her concern that she is burdening him. He rushes to help her feel positive, thinking this is the way to help her. It is almost unbearable to sit with her pain. He has tried everything to help her: brought in physical therapy, coaching, private movement sessions, all of which help in small ways for her to feel less isolated and find glimpses of hope. But still, each morning, she awakens with fear and frustration. Each day, she unleashes a list of “negatives.” He tries to rally her, tries to get her to see the bright side, the hope. They walk together; they go to the exercise room, where she gets on the stationary bike. But she is losing weight, unstable on her feet. She is tired.
He is losing, little by little, the woman he so admired for her courage, strength, and mental sharpness, which she is also losing.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he said to me the other day. Doctors are expected to know the answers. Patients are trained to expect this. And physicians, especially if they see themselves as the “fixer” type of doctor, only feel successful when they fix someone. To come home to a loved one whom you cannot fix feels like failure.
“I am able to fix people all day long, but this, the most important person in my life, and I can’t fix it,” he says.
But that’s not what she wants, I tell him. She is repeating her litany of woes because she wants to be heard. She would love to be fixed, but in lieu of that possibility, she wants what we all want: to be seen.
When people we love are hurting, just listening seems fruitless. But think about what you want most in the world. So many physicians tell me they yearn to come home to a partner who understands them. This is, in fact, what we all want. Even your patients — especially when they cannot be fixed — want to be heard and seen. Indeed, studies have shown that the best patient outcomes happen when doctors listen without judgment, even if there is no medical cure for what ails them.
Our greatest teachers are those we cannot fix.
My mother is this teacher for me. Falling into a pit of dementia for many years now and a rocky relationship before that, she has taught me the beauty of being here now. With a few rare exceptions, she is non-verbal. She does not look at me. She picks at her sweater. This was so painful to me at first, I couldn’t make it through a visit without weeping. Fighting back tears, I would turn away from her, as if her seeing me cry would still matter. You could not have told me two years ago that I would find peace today in the belief that we are still connected on a deep and timeless field of love; a place that is beyond this lifetime; and even without the validation of her eye contact or smile, that my just sitting with her, matters. But that’s what happened.
Covid offered me the opportunity to build a solid meditation practice. I did not know when I began meditating daily that being able to sit with my mother, without trying to fix her, would be one of the many gifts of the practice. When there is nothing to be fixed, my being is enough. Now my mother is a part of my practice. She is my best teacher. It the wordless stillness between us, I occasionally catch a faint smiles on her face as she points to a photo of my brother and I when we were babies, as we look at a photo album from long ago. If I were still busy trying to make something happen, to change her to make her speak or look at me, I might miss these moments altogether.
Learning to just be might feel like sitting on your hands at first. It is a life-long practice, after all. Just ask a Buddhist monk. As doctors, the being muscle has been all but trained out of you. So, how do you learn? It begins with yourself. In stillness and silence, you sit. After six weeks or so, your brain changes. This is observable gray matter change. It’s neural re-wiring, training the being muscle. That’s how you learn that you are, first and foremost, a human being.
With patience and practice, you then extend this to others — your patients, your children, your spouse, your parents. Human relationships are made of intimacy — the state in which you both feel understood. The greatest gifts can come when you cannot fix it. This is the space where being heals. This is how you sit with your humanness. This is how you sit with your loved ones. This is how you learn to love.
Susan Hart Gaines is an executive coach specializing in physician wellbeing, personal fulfillment, and the essential quest to be fully human. She can be reached at Wild Hart Coaching and on Facebook and Instagram @wildhartcoaching.
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