Unlike any other place I have ever worked, the Emergency Room is busy. I’ve worked in the busiest retail pharmacy in northern Wisconsin, the busiest inpatient unit at a teaching hospital, and plenty of other busy places. But the ER takes the cake. It is busy on a whole new level.
Any hospital is full noises, so much so that researchers worry about alarm fatigue for staff and hospitals are monitoring how quiet inpatient areas are at night. But the ER is noisy. When I first started, I honestly used to wake up from a dead sleep to the ominous high pitched tones of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) pager interrupting my dreams as it does my work flow.
My work is constantly full of interruptions. Even on my off days, my days are full of interruptions. A friend texts needing something. A telemarketer calls. My nephew Baby Pie (whom I babysat weekly) would wake up before I expected. Something in the apartment breaks down. I’m out of food or toilet paper!
Every day, something interrupts my plans. It drives me bonkers! Yet I am slowly learning that every interruption is a gift from the Father, a gift He is so kind to give to me every stinking day.
After over a year in the ER, I’ve found I am really emotionally struggling with the constant interruptions. No matter how hard I work, how much I prioritize and delegate and do those other action verbs that nursing school taught me to do, there is always more work, always more needs than I can fulfill, and always more unexpected interruptions.
I can never do enough! When I was an inpatient nurse, I could wrap up my patients in a pretty little bow and pass them along to my co-worker. Now it’s, well, I need this, this, this, and this. Have a good night!
Passing along a laundry list of tasks is normal in our ED work flow, but most other inpatient units don’t understand it. It drives me bonkers!
I work diligently to get an IV, lab work, blood cultures, monitor vitals signs, and radiology scans for a septic patient all while comforting him and contacting family, and the ICU nurse I give report to isn’t satisfied that I haven’t re-checked a temperature in the last hour.
I work diligently to get an IV, give pain medications to ease my patient’s pain appropriately for an open elbow fracture, radiology scans, local anesthetic and wound prep, and track down our orthopedic consult to sign a consent form, and the OR nurse I give report to isn’t satisfied that her pants are still on.
I work diligently to get a patient worked up, sent to the floor, and even go out of my way to write a little handoff note, and the floor nurse calls me because she isn’t satisfied with the information in our electronic medical record (EMR) provided.
I can never do enough!
The inherent perfectionist in me has a hay day whenever I throw this small pity party for myself. I maliciously think, Well, you could have done more if you hadn’t been interrupted so much! And, if I let it, the resentment towards all those interruptions starts to build: towards my nurse colleagues in other units, towards my co-workers in my department, towards the lab tech that called with an unforeseen critical lab, towards EMS for bringing in yet another patient, and even towards my patient for needing to go to the bathroom.
If I’m resentful for someone needing to use the bathroom, an ordinary and vital physiologic function, there’s something wrong with me, not my patient.
Interruptions are part of life. We’re always going to be interrupted, whether by a loved one, a patient, a stranger, or whomever else. Even more, interruptions are integral to our lives. Interruptions wake up up from the grind, challenge us to embrace the unknown, and are frankly good for us.
Interruptions do not disturb our work; interruptions are our work.
I came across this concept of interruptions being our work while reading my beloved Henri Nouwen in his brilliant book Reaching Out. He was visiting a friend, a teacher at the University of Notre Dame, and his friend said, “You know . . . my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”
Interruptions are our work! What!?!? How can this be!?
Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. Forget how it goes? Here you are:
“A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ “
The Good Samaritan is the epitome of what a health care provider strives to be. Yet a lot of days at work, I find myself like the priest or Levite, appearing to be a compassionate person, yet passing my patients on the metaphorical other side of the road because I’m just so busy.
Which brings us to a fascinating psychological study that’s really challenging my mentality towards interruptions at work:
In 1973 at Princeton Theological Seminary, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson decided to test the parable of the Good Samaritan on a group of seminarians. First, each seminarian was given one of two topics to prepare a spontaneous speech on: the vocation to religious life or the parable of the Good Samaritan. Next, each was given a survey to discern why they had entered seminary: religious life as a means for fulfillment or as a practical tool to find meaning in every day life. Lastly, the experimenter told the seminarian if they were running late to the presentation or if they had some time to make their way over.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point when discussing this famous study:
“If you ask people to predict which seminarians played the Good Samaritan (and subsequent studies have done just this) their answers are highly consistent. They almost all say that the students who entered the ministry to help people and those reminded of the importance of compassion by having just read the parable of the Good Samaritan will be the most likely to stop. Most of us, I think, would agree without those conclusions.”
– Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
I too agree with the seemingly logical conclusion. Health providers go into health care to help people, so they must be good, compassionate people, yes? Um, not all the time. Let’s just say I have stories, many of which are my own. Priests and Levites were supposed to be good, compassionate people too, and the Samaritans were a hated, hated, HATED people. Jesus obviously had stories too! Also, it may be helpful to know the subtitle of Gladwell’s book: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Clearly he’s setting us up for a surprise.
What did these good, upstanding seminarian students do when faced with real, live injured victim on the way to their speech? Well, some literally stepped over the victim. (As they wrote: “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”) Others acted like the Good Samaritan and stopped to help.
What made some stop and others step over?
Darley and Batson found the topic of the seminarian’s speech did not matter. Why the seminarian got into ministry did not matter. The seminarian’s inherent disposition for compassion did not directly influence his ability to actually be compassionate. The only factor that really mattered in the end was if the seminarian was in a hurry or not!
Perceived busyness or perceived lack of time was the difference between stopping to help an injured person or literally stepping over him. (This is not to say even those who were not in a hurry stopped and helped. 63% of subjects in the low hurry condition stopped to help compared to the 10% who stopped in the high hurry condition.)
As Gladwell wrote:
“What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior. The words “Oh, you’re late” had the effect of making someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone who was indifferent to suffering – of turning someone, in that particular moment, into a different person.”
– Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
I don’t know about you, but instead of teaching myself to mentally slowing down, I want to justify all my busyness and lack of compassion right now:
- But I had a sicker patient down the hall!
- But I had already told her what was going on!
- But I had already given him pain meds!
- But I was in the middle of discharging someone and had an ambulance on the way!
But, but, BUT! My litany of excuses could go on forever. Thankfully, Jesus isn’t one for excuses. He’s one for breaking through excuses, busyness, fears, doubts, bitterness, unforgiveness, and whatever else stands in our way to get to our hearts.
The whole parable of the Good Samaritan was in response to a scholar of the law. This wise guy asked Jesus to clarify what the Mosaic law meant when it said “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Like Cain who killed his brother and tried to justify himself before God by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), this scholar of the law tries to justify his probable lack of compassion before Jesus. I’d bet good money that this scholar knew he did not always treat every person with love as he did God or himself. So, much like myself, instead of looking to change his behavior, he looks for a loophole.
“But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.””
Boom! Whose your neighbor? Everyone! How should you treat my children? With compassion! Now go do it! Ugh, it’s so good and brilliant and difficult, Jesus! Can’t I just continue to make excuses? That’s infinitely easier…
But Jesus isn’t done. Jesus through the Gospel of Luke keeps calling out our busyness hypocrisy. He follows up the story of the Good Samaritan with the encounter of Martha and Mary. It’s a familiar story:
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Blah blah blah blah, let’s all be Mary who sits at Jesus’s feet and leaves everything else that must get done at the wayside. That’s what I’m going to say, right?
Nope, mostly because I’m Martha. “There is need of only one thing?!” What!? No. I have need of very many things, such as oxygen, food, and water. And those are need needs. I’d die without them! I only need to sit at your feet? That makes no sense, Jesus. I’ve at least got to get up to eat, and someone’s got to keep this world a-moving!
Clearly, like Martha, I too am “burdened with much serving.” I too become resentful when others aren’t helping me and paying attention to someone or something else. I too am “anxious and worried about many things.” Do you know how much I’d just like to sit there and leave everything else that must get done at the wayside? Unfortunately, I like my job and have bills to pay.
But then I read this story in Spanish.
(I’m not fluent. Trust me. I decided over a year ago to read the Gospels in Spanish to practice my limited language skills, force myself to slow down, and appreciate what’s being said in different words. It’s really helped me break through much of the monotony I was experiencing in reading scripture, and I highly recommend it if you’re even a little proficient in another language.)
Mientras iban caminando, Jesús entró en un pueblo, y una mujer que se llamaba Marta lo recibió en su casa. Tenía una hermana llamada María, que sentada a los pies del Señor, escuchaba su Palabra. Marta, que muy estaba muy ocupada con los quehaceres de la casa, dijo a Jesús: «Señor, ¿no te importa que mi hermana me deje sola con todo el trabajo? Dile que me ayude». Pero el Señor le respondió: «Marta, Marta, te inquietas y te agitas por muchas cosas, y sin embargo, pocas cosas, o más bien, una sola es necesaria, María eligió la mejor parte, que no le será quitada».
I spent over two weeks on this passage alone. The word that just killed all my justifications for my busyness was the word “quehaceres.” Now, quehacer can mean housework. It means task, chore, job, duty. Que means that or which, and hacer means to do or to make. So most literally, it means “that which must be done.”
(This is what I love and appreciate about Spanish. It can just be so hilariously descriptive at times. Like the word umbrella. In Spanish, the word is paraguas or literally, for waters.)
Never had I ever heard in any talk about this passage that what Martha was doing was “that which must be done.“But that’s because we rarely discuss our fallen relationship with work because we’re too busy discussing our fallen relationship with God and others.
Before the fall of man, God laid out a small laundry list of tasks to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. He purposefully gave them work to do! And, after He had made out everything He desired for the two to do, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31). He gives us work that is meant to be is good, fruitful, and a blessing.
But then, the fall happened. Humanity broke from its perfect, original plan that God laid out. The fall changed our relationship with work. Work that was meant to be good, fruitful, and a blessing was cursed to become a “toil” with “thorns and thistles” as produce won “by the sweat of your brow” (Genesis 3:17-19). Um, that sounds about how I feel about my job a lot of the time.
But, even after the fall, work is meant to be good, fruitful, and a blessing to us.
Jesus Himself work as a carpenter while on earth. Jesus wasted not a second of His life here on earth, spending every moment of it doing the will of God. Then why did He work in anonymity as a carpenter for decades before starting His ministry? His time in anonymity in Nazareth was a time of silent growth, preparing Him for his future ministry. And so too, our work can have incredible value, even when it feels like we’re doing nothing, not being recognized, and not being appreciated in our labor.
As Saint John Paul II wrote “by enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity” (Laborem Exercens, 27). Our work still has a redemptive quality to it, not only for others, but for ourselves!
Work is something that is valued by God, is good for others, and even better for ourselves. Therefore, in Luke’s Gospel passage, Jesus is telling Martha that it’s not that work itself that’s bad. It’s our attitude about our work that can be problematic.
Martha’s intention of being hospitable, making her house presentable, and taking care of her guest is a very noble gesture. Even though the very things she is doing are worthwhile, Martha’s attitude is sorely misdirected. She’s so busy making her house exteriorly welcoming to her guest, she’s not interiorly making her guest feel welcome.
As a former nomad (aka travel nurse), I’ve relied upon the hospitality of others frequently. I remember little of how the houses, apartments, and couches themselves looked, but I remember how my hosts made me feel. Most made me feel incredibly appreciated, loved, and welcomed. And that atmosphere had nothing to do with how the house looked but everything to do with the attitude of my host.
But when our attitude about work suffers, our work suffers. It’s not that what we’re doing isn’t worthwhile. It is! But we’re missing the “only one thing”: Jesus.
Jesus was right in front of Martha, and she missed Him. She was so preoccupied with her work that she passed by Him and buried herself in her work.
But aren’t we guilty of the same thing?
When I look at my patients, do I see the face of Christ? When my friends texts me, needing something, do I serve him or her as I would serve Jesus? When a telemarketer calls, do I treat him or her with the respect I want to show the Lord? When I stock my apartment, am I taking care of my roommate as I would God? When my nephew interrupts my plans, do I embrace the interruption as I would the Holy Spirit?
Now, I’m not saying we have to stop everything for everyone every time. If I stopped to give a patient water every time he or she asked and then engaged in a half hour conversation about his or her life, people might literally die. There’s some prudence that goes into our service too! Point is, are we so preoccupied that we’re missing our chances for authentic service?
Let’s face it: we’re human. I know I can become so burdened with my work, so preoccupied, so busy that I can miss concrete opportunities for true service. Sometimes, it is literally the patient sitting right in front of me! I, like Martha who had Jesus sitting in front of her, can be so preoccupied with serving that I forget to actually serve.
But let’s not lose heart: we’re human. Each time we miss an opportunity to authentically serve, we gain an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. As a much wiser man wrote:
“In the same way as strength is made perfect in weakness, charity is made perfect in temptations against charity. The occasion does not make the man; it shows what he is. It would be easy to be patient if there were no occasion for impatience.”
– Fr. Jean C. J. d’Elbée, I Believe in Love
We will have plenty more occasions to serve. Our whole lives are meant to be of service to one another! Instead of ruing our lost opportunities, we are in need of only one thing: prayer.
The only thing we need to restore our proper relationship with our work is to sit at the feet of the Lord. He has promised us rest when we are weary (Matthew 11:28). He has promised us a task that is easy with a burden that is light (Matthew 11:30). He has promised that we will bear great fruit (John 15:5). Intentional prayer opens our eyes to the possibilities right in front of us, allowing us to embrace present and future interruptions.
We must recognize that our relationship with our work is broken. Sometimes it’s going to be difficult to see the benefits of our labor, but we have to trust if we are doing our work to the best of our limited abilities, the Lord is blessing our work, and that work is doing some good, even if we can’t see it.
We can never allow our tasks, our jobs, our must does, to become a burden instead of a blessing. So, when the chance for authentic service comes around, do we stop to help or do we pass it by? If we are passing our opportunities (and therefore each other) by, what’s holding us back from helping?
My beloved Henri Nouwen summarizes my tangental thoughts succinctly:
“You are very concerned with making the right choices about your work. You have so many options that you are constantly overwhelmed with a question “What should I do and what should I not do?” You’re asked to respond to many concrete needs. There are people to visit, people to receive, people to simply be with. There are issues that beg for attention, books it seems important to read, and works of art to be seen. But what of all this truly deserves your time?
Start by not allowing these people and issues to possess you. As long as you think that you need them to be yourself, you are not really free. Much of their urgency comes from your own need to be accepted and affirmed. You have to keep going back to the source: God’s love for you.
In many ways, you still want to set your own agenda. You act as if you have to choose among many things, which also equally important. You have not fully surrendered yourself to God’s guidance. You keep fighting with God over who is in control.
Try to give your agenda to God. Keep saying “Your will be done, not mine.” Give every part of your heart and your time to God and let God tell you what to do, where to go, when and how to respond. God does not want you to destroy yourself. Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that hopefully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name.”
– Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
May you find time in your busy life today to sit at the Lord’s feet and ponder these things in our hearts. That’s exactly what Martha did after Jesus gently told her there’s more to service than physically serving. When Jesus came around again after the death of her brother Lazarus, she went out to meet Him and held nothing back (John 11). St. Martha, pray for us to embrace interruptions, or at the very least, admit to Our Lord exactly how frustrated we are so we may learn from Him.