Have you ever really appreciated the silence? The true silence that transports you to the root of it all. Our lives are a perpetual hamster wheel, chasing aspirations with underlying motivations that I often don’t completely understand. Good intentions and acts of kindness, seemingly altruistic, have hidden motivations of affirmation or appreciation. Why do you do what you do? It seems so obvious on the surface, but like an onion it has many complex layers filled with good intentions. I don’t know if it is my age, the path I’ve taken as an emergency physician, or the relentless exhaustion of life’s endeavors through a pandemic that made me take notice, take a breath, and refocus on what matters. What I do know is that perfect strength is found in submission and acceptance of your weakness.
As a physician, I fix things. As a father and husband, I protect and provide. I’m motivated by making a difference, by mattering to others and being needed. I serve others and have always felt a sense of meaning and purpose by the fulfillment provided. It feels good to be appreciated and to matter to others. There are many complex layers of motivation that are subtle, yet concrete, hidden in our unconscious minds. It’s not all altruistic harmony. We are motivated by affirmation, appreciation, or a sense of accomplishment. Take away the positive feedback loop, and where are we, what drives us to serve? COVID was hard. As an emergency physician, I have had a front seat view of the tragedy of the pandemic. Health care has lost astonishing numbers of seasoned veterans in the trenches. The road is littered with havoc as we navigated death, personal liberties, conflicting values, and ideologies. Many of us have become the walking numb. This phenomenon is not isolated to a pandemic and health care. It’s the common thread that makes the employee of 20 years step away or the lifelong friend cut off all ties. One day, what motivated, what inspired you to take that extra step loses all meaning. Then we question, why did I do this? Was it worth it?
The brilliance of truth shines brighter than the darkness of self-deception. Perfect strength is found when you are at the end of yourself. Sometimes I hear the clearest when I’m alone on a long run. When I start, there are racing thoughts of deadlines, to-do lists, and meeting agendas … but somewhere near the end of the run, when my heart rate increases and I’m drenched with perspiration, it all becomes clear. It’s on the verge of hypoxia, when all competing thoughts seem to fade in the distance and the granular truths become so much more obvious. The gentle but ever-present whisper of truth becomes more and more audible, when distractions fade.
I’ve had to excavate a lot of layers to get to the bedrock, understanding that one day in the vastness of eternity that my existence will hinge on one truth. Did I fulfill the calling that God created me for? Will He say well done, my faithful servant? Was it about me, or was it truly about him? It took a pandemic and the complexities of life to peel back the layers and confront the truth that it’s all been about me. Selfish ambitions are hidden by good intentions and justified by altruistic results. It was in one of those silent moments that this revelation broke me.
I’ve spent too many days, too many years following the examples of others, placing value and worth on the acceptance or admiration of others, finding out later that they were flawed copies of the true example. Exhaustion breeds clarity, and it was at the end of me, amidst a global pandemic, that the mist faded and I could see clearly. True leadership, true fulfillment can only be felt through servitude to others. Others are vast and all-encompassing, including my family, co-workers, patients, and strangers on the street. All are in search. All have a need, often subconsciously entangled in the relentless chaos of this world. We’ve complicated it. I’ve complicated it, then tried to rationalize it and fit it in a perfect compartment in my life. We forget the granular truth that it is better to give than receive and the impact it has on our lives. It becomes exhausting, painful, and relentless when it is all about you. But when it is about others, it becomes invigorating, inspiring, and powerful. Christ is the perfect example of servitude, fitting no molds as he shook the foundation of society and religion.
True happiness and fulfillment come in servitude of others. Too often, we complicate this definition, failing to realize that others encompass everyone other than yourself. It’s the waiter at the restaurant, the clerk at the store, it’s your spouse, your children, or the passer-by on the street. We serve when we see them through the eyes of Christ. A glass of water, a nod or acknowledgment to the forgotten, or patience for the overworked clerk becomes so much more when we understand the purpose. In health care, servitude becomes invigorating and motivating when we see our co-workers and patients for who they truly are and understand the magnitude of our influence at the moment.
Jeffrey McWilliams is an emergency physician.
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