By Mary T. Tracy
Why do I sometimes struggle to gracefully accept these lovely expressions of thanks to “those of us on the front lines”? Is it because I do not feel worthy to be counted among the ranks of janitors, food service workers, nurses, social workers, physicians, administrators, techs and therapists? Is it because there is so much work yet to do? Is it because I know that all the work I am contributing still will not be enough to spare everyone from suffering?
I don’t know.
So I have made make a list of the things I DO know, that get me out of bed every morning and give me comfort enough to fall asleep at night:
- Love wins.
- Prayer works.
- Grief is the healthiest gateway through experiences that reveal our lack of power.
- The spirit survives and turns our suffering, endured with love, into compassion.
C.S. Lewis described love (in the context of the Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbor) as desiring the good of the other purely for the sake of the other. It does not require liking one’s neighbor or condoning bad behavior. Properly employed, it sets the lover free to do the right thing – the loving thing – regardless of how it may inconvenience self or others.
I believe that we are oriented to love one another – and ourselves – in just this way. That is how we are naturally made. With luck and effort, we continue not only to love one another but we understand that it is worth the sacrifice that love requires and makes bearable. Sacrifice is required not only to give love, but also to receive love. By our inherent vulnerability, we learn about the sacrifice of receiving love first, as we receive it as infants from those we depend on for our very survival.
Gradually, we also learn the joy and power of giving love. We learn that it feels good to give our accomplishments to people who love us so much that they actually treasure our work (or at least our effort). Then, we learn how good it feels to share with our peers in more of a mutual power dynamic.
And yet, very near the beginning of our discovery of the power of love, we also learn the pain of grief, when our love is not reciprocated or received as we intend. Just when we begin to sense the power inherent in our ability to love, we also learn the limits of our power. We learn that love is not control.
This brings me to my conviction that prayer works. When we learn humility – loving without expecting control or safety or any particular benefit at all – we also gain incredible freedom to act as lovingly as we desire. It is also natural to feel shaken and disturbed when we encounter suffering both near and far, in loved ones and in perfect strangers. Those of us who have chosen healthcare as our mission have likely already had this awareness that we would rather run toward those in harm’s way, not away from them.
I speculate that the ER doctor in a New York hospital who recovered from COVID-19 was grieved not only to be ill, but to have lost – even temporarily – his channel for loving and serving others. It is a double grief. Fortunately, this Dr. Maldonado found a new source of gratitude in his increased capacity for empathy towards his future patients.
Thus, grief acknowledges that our feeling of control will ultimately fail. Education and training, our health, the health and life of loved ones, our sterling character, our trust in any human endeavor – all are good and worthy of our attention, but none of them can perfectly protect against mass disaster or mortality.
Where our power fails, prayer allows us to acknowledge our grief and honor our desire for the good of ourselves, our loved ones and even strangers near and far. We acknowledge all that we do not control and yet still desire. Prayer assures us that our struggle matters and is not in vain. Prayer provides a healthy channel for our hope, particularly when we dig a little deeper than our surface needs and desires. Prayer allows the heart to speak honestly, generously, of how love wins. It can allow the fog of grief to yield to the genuine power we do have – the invitations to act on our compassion that we have been missing, out of frustration, sorrow and anger over the power we have lost.
Prayer works because it also allows us to hear from our most reliable advocate – our spirit. I am convinced that the spirit is our indestructible center. Regardless of how fragile or broken we may be physically, mentally, emotionally, our spirit advocates for us, for our true hope, our true good. Ironically, our spirit can be quite shy, too gentle to be heard in the midst of normal daily life. When we take down time – by choice or by circumstance – we can discover the spirit’s encouragement that suggests a new or rediscovered hope that reorients our actions, our purpose, and our identity.
I alone can hear my own spirit. You alone can hear yours. We each must find our own way to hear our spirit speaking. For some, it may be talking with a friend. For others, it may be working in the garden or walking in a beautiful place. For still others, it may require writing from the heart just for one’s own eyes. I myself use all of these methods for attending to my own indestructible spirit. I invite you to do the same.
Mary T. Tracy, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Inova Fairfax Medical Center and Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Fairfax, Virginia.