For the past week or so, I’ve had the privilege of reading David Whyte’s book, “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.” If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you’ll already realize that I see identity and self-worth as intrinsically tied to our careers and how we move in the world as both professionals and citizens; most of us are just wired that way, and finding meaning in our work is what the majority of us truly want and need.
On January 9, 2017, I published a blog post entitled “Finding Meaning In Your Nursing Career“, and in that post I tried my best to relate to David Whyte’s main thesis within his book. This quote began the whole thought process:
At its simplest, good work is work that makes sense, and that grants sense and meaning to the one who is doing it and to those affected by it.
So, if we can find meaning in our work as nurses, have we arrived? Can we as nurses find the sense and meaning in our work and then rest on our laurels? No, the striving for even deeper layers of meaning in relation to our work can indeed be lifelong.
In the aforementioned blog post, I wrote the following:
If our identity as nurses is central to our personal identity, nursing takes on a meaning that can carry us through even the most difficult days, or leave us weeping in confusion and defeat. Our work as nurses can lead us to witness great suffering, moments of triumph against all odds, as well as a sense that life, illness, and health are sometimes gravely unfair.
As nurses, we witness the suffering of people of all ages, and some of us have watched children and the elderly die gruesome, painful deaths that we wouldn’t wish on our own enemies. Finding meaning in such awful circumstances can be a great challenge of the heart, yet it’s essential to identifying the reasons why we continue on our journey even when the pain is great and the suffering overwhelming.
In his book, Whyte also says the following?
If I can reduce my image of work to just a job I do, then I keep myself safely away from the losses to be endured in putting my heart’s desire at stake.
Like I reflected in that blog post, we’ve all known nurses who simply seem to have lost their humanity; how else can you say it? They’re the bullies, the mean nurses, those who seem to have zero compassion for anyone, sometimes including themselves. They can give our profession a bad name and make the lives of others miserable for good measure.
Finally, Whyte wrote this line that truly stuck with me:
All good work should have an edge of life and death to it, if not immediately apparent, then to be found by ardently exploring its greater context. Absent the edge, we drown in numbness.
So, whether we literally work with those who are at risk of death or not, what I believe Whyte is trying to say is that we have to risk going to the edge of our comfort zone and push ourselves to a place on the edge of discomfort in our careers.
The safe and narrow path may be comfortable, but he acknowledges that with that safety comes the risk of numbness. We can numb out on TV, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, exercise — these can all act as numbing agents that keep us from truly feeling the nature of our work, and dare I say it, the nature of our existence. I concluded that blog post thus:
Yes, our work as nurses can — and dare I say must — make sense, and it can also carry greater meaning in the context of our lives as nurses and members of our communities. Our patients can feel when we’re connected and present; on the other hand, they can also easily sense when we’re feeling burned out and resentful.
Meaning can come from teaching a nursing student to give an immunization, holding a child’s hand during chemotherapy, filling a pill box, or educating a dialysis patient as she enters an advanced phase of end-stage renal disease.
Meaning can also emerge from what we learn about ourselves within the world of our work. How do we treat our colleagues? What thoughts do we experience as we respond to yet another call bell? Can we approach that surgeon with slightly more patience? Would we treat our own mother the way we’re treating the woman in room 207?
Nursing can consistently provide a platform for personal growth if we allow it to do so; this can truly help us find the meaning behind and beneath what we do as nurses.
In the weeks and months to come, I challenge you to seek deeper meaning in your work, no matter the clinical or non-clinical nature of what you do. Make meaning by seeking meaning; you’ll find it’s often hidden within plain sight.
Your work as a nurse will take on the meaning you find, and that which you consciously give it. Consider what nursing means to you in the deepest sense, and embody that meaning as you continue your career as a member of our powerful, consequential profession.
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Be well, dig deep, and keep in touch!
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind NurseKeith.com and the well-known blog, Digital Doorway.
Keith is co-host of RNFMRadio.com, a wildly popular nursing podcast; he also hosts The Nurse Keith Show, his own podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. Keith was previously the resident nursing career expert at Nurse.com.
A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of “Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century.” He has also contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession, and has written for Nurse.org, Nurse.com, MultiViews News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online platforms.
Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse en