Saturday, October 31, 2009

Plate Spinning

I had a sort of epiphany this morning while running. I like it when that happens. I'm running along and my mind is clearing out, and suddenly an idea pops into my head, so I start to play with it. Then, before I realize what's happened, I have a whole new outlook on something, because my perspective has been turned inside-out, in a really good way. These moments seem to happen more often when I run than at other times of the day.

This morning I was thinking about being stressed at work and had an inside-out-turning of my perspective that was really great. Before I share that with you, I have to let you a little deeper into my world so it'll be more meaningful.

In my job as a Hospice RN I have to stay flexible with a host of shifting priorities and that constant shifting is a major source of stress for me. I know many people face similar challenges, so let me share my unique situation.

My perfect day at work is when I am scheduled to see Mr. A, then Mr. B, then Ms. C, then Mrs. D, then go home, and that is exactly what happens. But it is rare. Usually it is very different.

Let's say it is Tuesday and I am scheduled to have the perfect day. But if Mrs. D calls in the morning saying she is having a problem, maybe I can help her over the phone, but maybe not -- I may need to see her first and reschedule the other patients. Or what if Mr. G calls and is having a problem? Now I need to see him today instead of Thursday, and that may mean bumping one of my other patients to a different day. Maybe I come to work and find that Mr. B died last night. I may not need to go to his home today, but maybe I will. At least I'll make a phone call, and offer emotional support. Or maybe I come to work and find a message on my Blackberry that Ms. N is going to be a new patient and it is my responsibility to introduce her to our services -- which means I'll need to dedicate 4+ hours to this process, which means shuffling other patients around...

You get the picture. Now let me complicate it further by telling you that on average I care for 10-13 patients at a time. And patients are people. And people who are facing life-shortening illness sometimes have changes happen quickly, and they need me to help them in those times.

I love helping people, but I hate it when my perfectly planned day gets tossed out the window -- whether that happens at 1:15pm or 8:15am.

When my schedule changes, I often grumble and complain inside, but then I feel bad about it because after all these are PEOPLE who are DYING I am dealing with, and I should be a better sport about the whole thing (especially since, HELLO!, I intentionally CHOSE to go into this line of work). So not only am I stressed about the shifting priorities but I feel bad about being stressed. Then I cut myself some slack and remind myself I'm human too, and as such I get the grace to be imperfect and have needs and faults.

So my priorities get shifted every day, and that stresses me because it feels as if I am being pulled in 15 different directions all at once. It feels like this:

Do you notice how he looks like he is having fun?

I don't get that.

Maybe that's because if he drops a plate all that happens is people laugh and he says "oops". But in my job the plates are people so if I drop a plate it is a much bigger deal. I don't like that possibility, so I'd rather deal with fewer plates at a time. See, if I could just have 4 plates today, then 4 plates tomorrow, I think I'd be OK (I'm probably wrong about that as well, but I digress...).

But I don't just have 4 plates today and 4 plates tomorrow. I have 13 plates all at one time. I can do my best to figure out which plates to help on any given day, but my reality is one of constantly being called upon to run from plate to plate keeping them all spinning.

Because of the nature of my work I know each patient will die, and on average this happens just about every 5 days. So every 5 days or so a plate is removed from my responsibilities, but that is hard on me because it usually happens just when I've grown fond of that particular plate and also just figured out how best to keep it spinning. And it also means that when I least expect it I will be told "Here you go -- another new plate to go figure out."

I have to pause here and say I really hope I don't sound callous. Each and every patient I care for has tremendous worth as a human being and I treasure the moments they allow me in to share their lives with them as they finish their journey here. Each patient is very special to me and referring to them as "plates" may seem discompassionate or even cavalier and I'm sorry for that. But I'm trying to help you understand my human heart and frailty as a person and how stressful my job can be. Because the more you understand how stressful my job can be, within the context of the spinning plates analogy, the more sense it will make to you when I go on now and tell you my epiphany.

There I was running along in the pre-dawn wondering what to do with the stress I feel from spinning plates, and in my mind's eye the imagery shifted, and turned all inside-out and bass-ackwards.

It went from this:
to this:
And suddenly I felt peaceful about it all. See, instead of me being the guy who is running from plate to plate trying to keep them all spinning...what if in reality I am. Just. One. Plate?

What if all I need to worry about it is keeping myself spinning by staying centered on that stick?

And that would imply each of my patients has a measure of responsibility for their own spinning. Yes, I have an important role to play, but really it is their journey, not mine.

It turns out I'm stressed because I take on a responsibility that is not mine to take!


And then as I was reeling from that "A-ha!" moment, the image shifted a bit this:
And it was another "A-Ha!" moment. See, the idea of keeping myself centered is good but horribly incomplete because,
the reality is
plates don't actually
have the ability
to spin themselves.
I don't have the capacity to keep myself centered. If I am the plate, then any "responsibility" I take -- any wiggling motion I do make to try and "keep myself centered" usually just makes things worse and the best thing to do is relax and choose to trust The One whose hand is down there keeping me spinning.

That removes a ton stress, and I can just be me and help people and not sweat the other stuff. And that is good for me, but it is also good for my patients, and my coworkers and my wife, and everybody! =O)

A guy from the 1st century called Paul understood this pretty well and wrote some stuff about it, if you want to read it here. I've read his comments before and thought I understood them, but today I got a personalized example and word-picture. Pretty cool huh?

~ Keith

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Running Into Myself

John "The Penguin" Bingham describes allowing running to change him into the person he wants to be, one step at a time. He calls this "running into myself".

I have seen this in my own life over the last 16 months since I started running in June 2008. My running shoes are now somewhat sacred to me, and I wear them only for running -- nothing else. When I lace them on, and head out the door, each kick-off is a step behind me and each new foot-plant is a new me, becoming. I've lost over 50 lbs, and my resting heart rate has gone from the high 70s to the mid- to high-40s. I just feel better. But more than that I feel more...


I have to acknowledge that a part of it is the weight loss. When I look at my picture from 7th grade, I see a normal-weight kid who is happy and healthy and looking forward to life ahead. My 8th grade school picture is a photo of a pudgy kid*. I've spent most of my life looking into the mirror at the man who grew up from that pudgy, patently nonathletic, insecure kid from 8th grade. Now when I look into the mirror I see the man who grew up from the 7th grade kid.

Another nod to The Penguin: I'm an "adult onset athlete" and it feels good to be healthy. A friend (who will remain un-named -- but I've known him since 7th grade and looked up to him as an athletic person) recently said something like "I hope when I'm your age I'm that healthy. Wait...I am your age!"

That felt good, but wasn't as meaningful as it would have been 2 years ago. The 8th-grade pudgy kid in me would have given his left arm to hear someone say that. The 7th-grader in me today, though -- not so insecure -- laughed and acknowledged it, but moved on...and THAT felt good. Does that make sense?

So running has given me the benefit of becoming more the person I want to be. But insecurities and faults and flaws still live deep in me. Running is only one way to change me. There are others. Some of these can be pretty scary, but becoming a runner has given me the confidence to face new challenges more hopefully.

One other way to become more myself is to spend time alone in a small space -- where every time I turn around I (quite literally) keep "running into" my "self".

It was for this express purpose I recently went to a place in the Silver Falls area called CRC. I stayed in a tiny A-frame building called the "Prayer Hut".I took my bible and my journal and a couple books that have been helpful recently in digging into the depths of my self -- maybe that sounds narcissistic, but here's a story:

When I was a kid sometimes my dad would drive me places. I'd turn on the radio and he would turn it off. I'd turn it back on and he'd turn it back off. This would repeat a few times and finally he'd tell me to leave it off and then say something like:
"What's the matter?
Are you afraid of your own thoughts?"
And, well...I guess yeah I was, and still am sometimes. I look in the mirror and while the body is that of the grown-up 7th-grader still sometimes in the corner of my eye I see the lost-ness of the 8th-grader peering through and I wonder what it is like to be whole. Mark twain once said
"The worst kind of loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself"
So once in awhile I think it is important for me to turn off my cell phone, leave my laptop at home, and just get away from it all to be alone And. Just.
With my self.

So recently I spent 3-4 days reading and writing in my journal and praying and really connecting with God on a deep deep level.
I sensed
The Maker of the Universe
look at me and smile
in simple unbridled
and fraternal
and friendly
and a sense of
and positive destiny
And you know what I re-learned? Far more than any person's complimentary remark, that love of God burning deep in my heart -- this is what makes my day.

On a bad day this is what lets me know everything will be OK. And this is what, on a good day, makes everything seem brighter and clearer and more alive.

Now I'm home again and re-plugged in. Life and work and community all go on and challenges and stresses have a way of rebuilding themselves. I can't live as a hermit, and so I run. When I run, I sometimes catch a glimpse of that love in my heart.

Some days running is just habit. Other days it is an exercise in self-denial. But on other days, it's like Eric Liddell says in Chariots of Fire: "When I run I sense God's pleasure".

To celebrate one year of running, in June 2008 I ran a half-marathon. It was preceded by 14 weeks of training, which was brutal but fulfilling -- and made the race itself less brutal and more fulfilling -- exhilarating, even. My goal is to run the Portland Marathon in October 2010. After that maybe someday I'll run a longer distance. It is symbolic of my race through life. Life is not a sprint. Things, like becoming myself, take time -- likely, the whole rest of my life.

So I run. As a Nike ad puts it, I run not because I am in a hurry, or because someone is chasing me.

I run just because.

I'm running a half-marathon in mid-January and my 14 weeks of training begins this Monday. I can't wait to get out on the roads at 5:30am, before the sunrise. Just God, and me, and my shoes hitting the pavement;

pickin' 'em up & puttin' 'em down.

Running into myself.~ Keith

* Sometimes I wonder "What happened to me between 7th and 8th grade?" I have some answers on that one, but that's another story, and really just for me and my journal. But here is a song that struck me today, and the overall message is right in line with how I feel inside when I wonder that wonder, and also right in line with why I run:

The Love That you Give
by Jeff Searles

These days I find myself
Wanting something that I lost
A long long time ago
Ghost of a memory that haunts me
The way that it was
A long long time ago

The Love that You give
Is the Love that I need
The Love that You give
Is the Love that I need

Lately I feel so empty
Trying so hard to fill up
Something inside of me
But I always miss the mark
And end up breaking apart
Something inside of me

And the Love that You give
Is the Love that I need
The Love that You give
Is the Love that I need
The Love that You give
Is the Love that I need