Mine is a family of servants, people who have decided to base their careers upon service to others—teachers and firemen and farmers.
And nurses. Four of them.
It takes a special sort of person to be a nurse. Never mind all of the things they must do each day that would engage the gag reflex in the rest of us. That makes nurses admirable, but not special. What makes them special is the inherent caring and compassionate personality that is required of them. You have to love people to be a good nurse. You have to understand pain and fear and worry, and you have to deflect them with smiles and a calm voice.
Or so I’ve been told.
My mother has been a nurse for over forty years. She’s seen, poked, prodded, and examined nearly every part of the human body in that time, and often more than once. She’s seen people die and die slowly, listened as they broke down in tears, and had to clean up urine and feces.
It’s tough being a nurse, she’s often told me. The pitfalls are many. It’s hard work and long hours and sore feet. It’s being surrounded by the sick and the wounded and the dead who have yet to realize they are. It’s the knowing that there will never be a slow season or a down time.
But those aren’t the real challenges. There is something worse than the sore feet and the long hours. Something even worse than having to clean up urine and feces.
It’s growing cold.
My mom has seen it. Has had to battle it. As have my two sisters in-law and my niece. All of them walked out of college and into the real world ready to make a difference, ready to care, only to find out that the difference they wanted to make is most times a pretty small one and that caring can bring all sorts of problems.
There is only so much suffering a person can see and be a part of before it all starts to blend together. You have to be careful, mom says. It’s easy to get attached to a patient only to have him or her take a turn for the worse. Easy to hope when no hope is possible.
It’s easy to feel so much pain that you don’t feel pain anymore. It’s a method of self-preservation. You harden yourself. You grow cold.
I don’t think that applies to nurses only.
I think we all face that battle.
I think we all start out wanting to make a difference. Wanting to care. I think we all at some point believe that this life can somehow be made better with us in it. We dream. We hope. We even think we can change the world.
But then age makes us a part of that world. Dreams are replaced by the necessities of making a living and paying bills. Hopes evaporate against the heat of reality. We find the world is bigger and we are smaller than we thought. Overcoming comes second to getting by.
And we are tempted, so tempted, to believe that rather than living all for one and one for all, it’s best to live with every man for himself.
The pain and the despair can seem so big. So endless. Beyond fixing.
Before we know it, before we can even see it coming, we can go from wanting to change the world to being satisfied with wanting the world to not change us.
And we can go from wanting to ease the hurt in others to not wanting to be hurt ourselves.
That’s when we grow cold. When brick by brick we build a wall around ourselves to keep the world away.
My mother says that’s what happens to nurses sometimes. My wife says that’s what happens to teachers. I say that’s what happens to people.
Because the simplest way to not get hurt is to stop caring. That’s how you get tough, some say.
But I say that you get tough by staying vulnerable in a world that will assault you with pains that cannot be overcome and a despair that rains down upon you.
You get tough by understanding that the only thing worse than feeling hurt is feeling nothing.
It’s a doubleheader for me today, as I’m also posting over at The Master’s Artist. If you’re so inclined, follow me over there. You’ll meet Jesse, the greatest storyteller I’ve ever known.