How to Find Hope in Chaos

All of us are experiencing a life or death moment.

Posted May 20, 2020

A mom puts her child to bed with a cold and in the morning, he won’t wake up. A man goes to work and has no idea his car is going to careen off a road. A simple headache slowly worsens and finally, when she finally decides to have it evaluated, the MRI looks like a dime-store nickel machine filled with tumor gumballs. Even more palpable, a new virus scours the earth, looking for victims. Looking for a way to change our way of life.

I started medical school ready to be in the thick of it. I was cocky, motivated, and unstoppable. I had watched ER on TV, shadowed family friends in the hospital, and read all the latest and greatest books on being a doctor. I thought I was going in with my eyes wide open.

Lenetstan / Shutterstock
Source: Lenetstan / Shutterstock

I had no clue. I thought the hard part of medicine was going to be learning all the material, programming all the facts, procedures, and protocols into my neuroanatomy. I wish. No doubt that was difficult, like drinking from a fire hydrant, but it paled in comparison to the challenge of working so closely with life and death. It’s one thing to watch it on TV or read it in the pages of a book. It’s safely held at arm’s length and easily shut down. It’s quite another to have it right in front of your face so you can smell the stench of suffering and feel firsthand the nausea of loss and fear.

And now all of us are experiencing a life or death moment. A pandemic. It is a confusing and scary turn of events, not just for me, not just for the US, but for everyone. Think about that for a moment. No one is immune.

All these emotions are difficult to handle. I know because I’ve been dealing with life and death as an emergency physician for twenty years. And at this point, I’m still no expert. But I have come to some realizations. I have come to find hope in the stream of chaos. Let me explain.

When I first became a doctor, I thought I was ready to handle it all. I was wrong. Talk about wandering into the hurt cave with no flashlight, I was at a loss. I had no idea how to handle my emotions, and there was no textbook that had the answers. Doctors are somehow expected to be immune. And so, I carried on. But in the quiet of the night or the moments in the day, while I walked the long halls of the hospital alone, my angst started to well up like the gases of hot springs. It was nasty like sulfur, foul and retched. It started to consume me, the despair and horror.

Little did I know this was the very place I had to go to really find my true soul. Something started to happen to me in the depths of my own emotional torture chamber. I stopped focusing so much on “Why.” Why was there so much suffering? Why do people have to die? Why is there a pandemic? Slowly, I began to see life differently. I began to take in, I mean really take in, the things around me that meant the most: My kids, my family, my friends. I stopped worrying about the “Why.” I took the time to breathe and it felt good. I had been so worried about where I was going that I forgot to just enjoy going.

Our society is full of drive, expedience, and urgency. We chase so many superficial truths and goals. I had been totally caught up in everything the world was throwing at me. It wasn’t until I saw how fleeting and fast everything could disappear, that I began to enjoy the process of living, the journey. I started to slow down, sit and reflect, think. Take it all in. I felt no urgency, no rush, no goal. I stopped looking for good or bad, happy or sad. I just wanted to know the moment.

The pandemic is doing the same thing. It is doing it for all of us. Tragic and deadly, it is a bitter pill to swallow for sure. But is also giving us a moment of pause. It gives us a reset.

Indeed, life is fragile. But it is the tension that allows the relaxation. The sorrow is what allows your lungs to open and take a full breath. It allows us to feel all the emotion. It makes the sunset more stunning, a springtime rain more refreshing and a child’s hug more encompassing.

I’m not trying to present some Zen moment. I’m not sure such a moment exists, at least for me. It’s about understanding the process. It’s not just a cliché’; life really is a journey, filled with exhilarating moments and terrible consequences. I can’t have one without the other. I need it all. Accepting that there is beauty in chaos and grace in tragedy gives me hope. It’s a hope that allows me to hold my head up. It allows me to fully love my wife and kids. Finally, it allows me to go into the ER during a pandemic and prepare to fight another day.