I went to pick up a disposable blue gown today as I have countless times this week, month, year, decade. In doing such a mindless and ordinary task, this time for “ordinary” diseases, I was suddenly hit by a series of flashbacks: delicately laying masks on a single paper towel, triple checking my gown ties and face shield before entering a room, standing watch outside patient rooms to coach staff in donning and doffing…
I froze in place for a few seconds and felt my pulse race. A few seconds of deep breathing and of anticipating the chest tightness… and the feeling of being overwhelmed slowly faded away, leaving only the usual alarms and beeping and dinging that characterize any typical hospital floor. It was brief and silent and I went on with my work day.
How do people respond to traumatic exposures? It is surprisingly unpredictable. While we know on a population level certain things – most people are resilient with no long lasting effects, some are more vulnerable, dose dependent exposure matters through repetition or severity or proximity – there is much that is mysterious and incalculable.
I know these things… or at least have read about them in books and journal articles and presentations and patient charts. But it is another thing entirely to feel your whole world disordered, as if not only the home of your workplace but the home of your mind is invaded. What does it mean when the ordinary can become overwhelming at any moment and through any circumstance? What happens when you feel ashamed that your part and your risk was so small compared to the work and devastation of so many others you know, that you should feel grateful to be a survivor and a hero and a living platitude? What happens when the universal is so unusual that you feel both exposed and unknown at the same time?
In recent months I have taken to listening to music as a way to counteract the slide of panic and dysregulation that occasionally seizes me (the playlist is actually simply titled “help”). I have been returning to one particular song many times:
Holy, there is no one like You
There is none beside You
Open up my eyes in wonder
Show me who You are and fill me
With Your heart and lead me
In your love to those around me
I will build my life upon Your love
It is a firm foundation
I will put my trust in You alone
And I will not be shaken
In listening to this, I came to realize I have misunderstood what it means to “not be shaken”. I had somehow always understood this phrase, taken from Psalm 62, to be a call to build my own resilience: to steel myself, to strengthen my faith, to take another wellness module and train the sinews of my mind to better wrestle with the uncertainty and doubt that shake the world so that I instead might stand apart as steadfast. But in re-reading it I see that it is the opposite: He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. The indefatigability promised does not come from me but from outside me.
And so I am slowly learning what it means to rest and to lean into the arms of one who calls himself Father with the sort of trust that my own children show to me, undeserving as I feel. I am learning what it means to be drawn in love to those who are hurting and those who are my enemies, not out of my own affection which is shallow and fickle but by being shown the way by someone who was crucified and torn in pieces like a loaf of bread divided up in communion. I am hoping to, one day, find myself experiencing the wonder and rest that I have heard about so much and crave so deeply.