Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Rainbows and Puppy Dogs

Back in May, I went to see Oprah deliver the commencement speech at Harvard University. I had really high expectations for that speech and unfortunately, it didn't meet them. That's OK though because Oprah's like Peapod -- she can screw up as much as she wants ... I'll keep coming back.

Last weekend, Andy forwarded me a speech for which I had absolutely no expectations. It was a commencement speech given by George Saunders and since I hadn't even heard of the guy, I didn't expect much from what he had to say.

Then I read the speech. In my humble opinion, it was a 9.8 to Oprah's disappointing 6.5. I've thought about it ever since.

*  *  * 

For me, one of the worst feelings in the world is that which comes with knowing that I hurt someone with something that I said or did. Thank goodness, it doesn't happen often (that I know of), but I can remember the times that I hurt someone with the utmost clarity. (Oh, and for the record, harsh things I've said to my husband when he did something wrong don't count, but cutting Teddy's baby finger the first time I used scissors on his nails definitely does.) 

After my treatment three weeks ago, I wrote a blog about an interaction that I had with a nurse in the lab. I wrote that blog for the same reason that I usually write -- to help me organize thoughts that would otherwise swirl down destructive paths in my brain. I never expected, and certainly never intended that the blog would do anything more than that. 

Then again, I should have remembered that my mother is my Mom. 

For my Mom, the issue of what Elaine had said to me was far from over. She wasn't mad -- she's far too professional for that. Instead, she was motivated. She wanted every doctor and nurse in the whole wide world to stop and consider the power of the words they choose for vulnerable patients. Chemotherapy is not "poison," she insisted, and no one caring for cancer patients should ever refer to it that way. 

Since she knew reaching the whole world was an ambitious goal, she at least wanted to reach the health care providers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. So she went online to find out who she could contact there to discuss the issue. When she found the President of Dana-Farber's email address on their webpage, inviting comments like her's, she asked me if she could use it. (I'm thinking they may have since taken it down. Kidding, Mom.)

I admit, I was hesitant about her idea to share the blog. I hadn't written the blog as something that anyone at Dana-Farber would read, never mind the President. But my Mom has always adamantly believed that none of us can ever improve if we don't get positive and negative feedback. I totally agree with her; I just lack the guts and the grace involved in giving (and, truthfully, in receiving) negative feedback. After some discussion, I believed that it may be useful for someone at the hospital to read the blog, even if I never had intended it as feedback. 

After I gave my Mom the green light, I didn't think anything about it, probably because I figured that nothing would happen at all. Shame on me for underestimating Dana-Farber. 

Within hours (and, by the way, around midnight), the head of the breast care program responded to my Mom's email. I admit, I was impressed solely by the fact that the President had read my Mom's email, forwarded it to the leader of the breast care program, and that this prominent oncologist had responded. But I was even more impressed by his actual words, which I found to be thoughtful and productive, mostly because they opened the lines of communication if my Mom wanted to talk further. I was also deeply comforted by the doctor's words that "Herceptin in an amazing medicine..." Personally, that's all I really wanted to hear. In my mind, the case was closed. 

But Dana-Farber is excellent because they constantly pursue excellence. So unbeknownst to me, the issue was still a work in progress. 

Earlier this week, another top administrator at the hospital, an individual in charge of the nurses, called me. At first, I had no idea why, but I soon realized that she wanted to discuss the incident in the lab. In fact, she wanted to meet me when I was in for my next treatment (today). I felt embarrassed -- like I had blown something out of proportion; like I should have had a thicker shell when Elaine was casually talking to me. I blamed myself, which I have a tendency to do. 

Then it dawned on me that my records had lead the administrators back to Elaine. How could have I have been so stupid to have assumed that using a pseudonym in my blog was all I needed to do to hide "Elaine's" identity? Of course the hospital could see who had inserted my IV that day -- it was in my chart! And then that terrible, awful, horrible feeling crept into my stomach. I had hurt Elaine. 

Of course, there's an incredible irony to this blog so far -- right about now, my Mom probably feels that terrible sick feeling in her own stomach, worried that her idea to forward the blog to the President hurt me. Oh goodness, this has gotten complicated. But it's that complication that fascinates me tonight.  

*  *  *

The George Saunders speech reminds us all (as if we need a reminder) that it's so much easier to respond sensibly, reservedly, mildly to something uncomfortable. We all know it's usually just easier to keep quiet when we see something wrong; that's part of why I pretended (to Elaine) that her comments hadn't hurt me -- it was just easier to reserve my emotion; to smile mildly as if nothing had just happened. But something had happened. And even if my thoughts weren't sensible (indeed, in retrospect, I know that they weren't), at the time, those thoughts very terrifyingly real.

George Saunders explained: 

... Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

I just had to Google "facile" even though I'm pretty sure I should know what that word means. Anyways, now I do. It means appearing neat and comprehensive by ignoring the complexities of an issue. I agree that the goal of trying to be kinder does sound "neat," and I like that Mr. Saunders explains:

Kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

Take Mr. Saunders's example about his neighbor, for instance.

I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her. But still. It bothers me. 

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

What I take from this is that Mr. Saunders regrets not having had an effect on a bad situation; he regrets that he never made a real difference for the girl. He knows now that his mild response just wasn't enough.

This is just another reason why I love my Mom, and 33 years later, I understood it all today.

I don't think my Mom ever fails at kindness. Sure, she thinks babies (and maybe even rainbows) are boring and she probably wouldn't even pet a puppy dog. But my Mom will tread into uncomfortable waters with respect and with grace if she thinks that doing so could help someone. She will have difficult conversations in order to make things better even though those conversations are rarely, if ever, fun. My Mom will ask questions then listen to the answers, and she'll expect that the other person does the same in return. Yes, my mother has high standards and she's proud of that fact. She pursues excellence for the employees that work at her hospital and for the patients that they care for. And she pursues excellence for me, and for the men and women who will walk into Dana-Farber after I do.

To be honest, the sensible, reserved, mild part of me just wants to give Elaine a hug and tell her that I'm fine; that she doesn't need to worry about having hurt me. I know that my Mom would encourage me to do that if it made me feel better.

But my Mom has taught me something more about kindness; about the messier stuff that's beneath the surface of it. She taught me that real, true kindness takes more than just a smile and a hug. It takes courage to bring an issue to the forefront and intelligence to determine how to best address it. Kindness involves the empathy and awareness that will allow us to be productive rather than destructive while we walk the very fine lines that present themselves in difficult conversations. Most of all, kindness takes selflessness because, as Mr. Saunders reminds us, keeping quiet is usually so much easier.

George Saunders tells us that we'll remember most fondly those people who were kindest to us. I agree, but I'd push the concept a little further. Because I believe that we'll remember most fondly the people who had the guts and the grace to stand up and say, This could be better, for you and for others after you. Often those people aren't the rainbow or the puppy dog type. But they're the ones who will find you a rainbow or a puppy dog, whatever it takes, if you tell them that a rainbow or a puppy dog would make you feel better. Those are the people I will remember most fondly. And obviously, my Mom will be at the front of that precious pack.

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