I recently attended the conference/retreat “Integrity in Health Care: The Courage to Lead in a Changing Landscape.” I arrived there in the usual state for me, tired, stressed and struggling to balance all of my clinical and administrative responsibilities with the rest of my life.
I work as a psychiatrist and as Clinical Director at an inpatient/residential psychiatric rehabilitation program with a population of treatment-resistant clients and a staff group that is going through union action. I took on the job hoping that I could bring a holistic approach to foster recovery and rehabilitation for clients and well-being for the staff, but I am not sure how successful I have been with either the clients or the staff. Many days feel like a constant barrage of worries and concerns about clients, staff and a never-ending stream of emails.
What I found at the conference was not any easy answer or magic solution to my daily worries. What I did find was a chance to reflect on my own situation with a group of supportive facilitators and participants. Having this time and space allowed me to connect more deeply to myself as well as to connect with other health professionals struggling with similar demands. As a result of the conference I felt more hopeful, less alone and that I had more inner and outer resources to bring to my daily work.
I think one of the most damaging aspects of our work in health care is the despair that comes from trying to do good work in systems that, directly or indirectly, seem to inhibit good work. We thus have systems in which everyone is working hard, yet no one feels good about the work that they are doing.
The conference was structured around Parker Palmer’s “Five Habits of the Heart,” from his book Healing the Heart of Democracy. These habits are: understanding we are all in this together; an appreciation of the value of “otherness;” the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways; a sense of personal voice and agency; and the capacity to create community.
For me this boiled down to developing a sense of internal connection and cohesion while also developing connection to others and building community. This led me to reflect that if we can hold the inevitable tensions between individual and community in life-giving ways, the personal growth and well-being of the individual can contribute to the complexity and health of the community.
The idea of embracing tension rather than trying to eliminate it got me thinking of the tension in my own work and life. If I can shift my perspective toward daily stress and tension as a life-giving energy for work instead of as a drain and impediment to my work, perhaps I can more skillfully support the growth of a therapeutic community at the rehabilitation center where I work. The concept of a therapeutic community is that no one individual has responsibility for solving the problems that arise in the community, rather the work is done in open discussion between all members of the community.
Palmer’s habits of the heart serve as an excellent guide for this kind of work by valuing the individual and the community and by seeing the tension as a source of life energy. To me, this was the most useful concept from the conference, that stress and tension can be re-framed and used for positive work.
This concept of holding tension between opposites, rather than trying to have one opposite (e.g., hope) overpower the other opposite (e.g., despair) allows for a complex and systemic approach to complex and systemic problems. The idea of tension being life-giving rather than something to get rid of reminds me of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's approach to the problem of opposites, that there is a “unifying third” that unites the opposites into a higher order of meaning. We can look at integrity as the “unifying third” that comes from holding the reality of despair about contemporary health care and the need and fact of hope. In practice, integrity is generated from embracing the despair and the hope in contemporary health care.
Where does this hope come from? I found hope when I looked into the eyes of the facilitators and participants at the conference. I found it when I looked into myself. Hope is there, it is a living thing. It is just that there is also so much despair that it is easy to lose sight of hope. Hope is intrinsic to the very idea of health care. We all went into this field because we felt that something hopeful could be done in the world.
I'd like to return to this idea of tension being “life-giving.” The image that came to me was of the poles of a magnet. Electromagnetic lines of force emanate in complex and systemic ways around the negative and positive poles of the magnet. These electromagnetic fields create energy that can be used for work. Cancellation of either the negative or positive pole leads to a collapse of the energy and an inability to do work.
To move from the metaphor back to our discussion of hope and despair, it is quite apparent that if despair eclipses hope no work can be done. (I will leave the opposite statement of what happens when hope eclipses despair to the metaphysicians, as this does not appear to be an immediate risk in health care.) If this metaphor holds, we can shift our attitudes toward the reality of despair and let go of our desire to eliminate it. Instead, we can view it as a powerful generator of energy and work when it is in a tension-filled relationship with hope.
We do not need any help to find sources of despair to feed this life-giving tension. However, we do need to periodically renew our sources of hope. Luckily these can be found when we pause in life and look within and look to others who are doing hopeful work. One great place to pause is at an “Integrity in Health Care” retreat.
This conference was not a passive, one-way exchange of information from the facilitators to the participants. We had ample time for personal reflection and small and large group work. The facilitators were compassionate and skillful in stimulating discussion and reflection to promote individual and group work. The other participants were inspirational in their personal honesty, their humanitarian drive to alleviate suffering and the creative ways that they were doing clinical and administrative work.
I remember one small group where we discussed how we can facilitate individual and group reflection in busy health care environments. We spoke about mindfulness and poetry as ways to accomplish this. This discussion was very helpful for me and I take away a particular commitment to have more poetry in my life as I find it ignites a dimension in me that I often push on the back burner. As the poet and translator of sacred texts, Juan Mascaró, writes:
“The appreciation of a poem is an act of creation whereby we go towards the greater life that created the poem. An expansion of life." There is another tension in health care between the poetry of medicine and the science of medicine. We work in a time when the science (and the business) of medicine often obscure the poetic value in our work. Mascaró further writes that:
“There is inner observation and experiment and outer observation and experiment. From the first comes poetry and spiritual vision and all human values; from the second science and technology.”
What I take away from this conference is an enhanced ability to hold this tension between inner and outer observation and experiment, which allows human values and science to co-exist in the delivery of health care. Practically, this means I have a renewed sense of self-connection, a stronger sense of community and more hope from the work that others are doing in health care. With a handful of poems and a heart-full of hope, I return to my daily life and work.