Selflessness School

I used to have this long spiel where I explained how having a kid is basically an immersive learning experience on the subject of putting someone else’s wants and needs before your own. It would take me about five minutes to get my point across until one day my friend Jolene cut me off and said “It’s like selflessness school.” and I said. “Uh, yeah. That.”

So yes, Jolene, having a kid is like selflessness school. You get constant practice at not doing what you want to do, but doing what your child wants to do. You don’t go to the bathroom or get a drink or eat a snack or pick your nose when you want to. You do it when the kid is ok with you doing it. Or when they are napping.

Replace “kid” with “patients” and that is also an accurate summary of what it’s like to work at 12-hour nursing shift.

Which is more or less the point I’m getting at. It’s slowly dawning on me that while becoming a father has been a rather jarring shift into care-for-others-with-the-bulk-of-my-time-and energy-mode, the selflessness training that I’m going through is not unique to the parental role.

I experienced a similar shock when I got married and realized that my wife was there ALL THE TIME and would probably continue to be for quite a while. I couldn’t just do what I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it – and it turned out I was deeply attached to that mode of living. Margie took three days to find a full-time job after we moved into our first apartment; I took nine months. I am convinced this was because God wanted me to spend my time and energy on becoming a better and more loving husband and not on starting a career. Those nine months were also like selflessness school, if not selflessness bootcamp, and while they were very hard and involved a lot of fights and tears, I grew into a much more loving and much less selfish husband through them.

My friend Nick and I should not be friends. We like to do similar things, but we do them in completely opposite ways that tend to aggravate each other. We don’t see eye to eye on a number of important political, social, and aesthetic issues. What we do share is that we love Jesus, and we were both leaders in our college Christian fellowship. (OK, we also both love nerdy board games). After being friends for a little bit in college, we got to the point where we discovered all the things that really pissed us off about each other – the friendship was not fun anymore. But over the course of my junior year we eventually decided that we were not going to stop being friends just because we now found it hard. What we had in common and what we cared about together were more important than what we despised in each other. We were going to work on our friendship and by God’s grace, we were going to make it work.

Today, Nick is my best friend after my wife. Not because I get along with him most naturally or because I’ve known him longer than anyone else or because we have the most in common. We are best friends because we went through selflessness school together and we survived.

In a certain sense, doing selflessness school with a baby is easy. The baby makes you do it – she will literally die if you don’t make radical changes to your life and care for her constantly. There’s also a lot of social support and reinforcement for new parents as well. It’s generally acceptable to take extended time off from work to be a new parent. You will probably go to jail if you neglect your child.

My wife, however, will not starve to death if I don’t feed her. If I don’t keep up my part in caring for her she will be deeply hurt, but she will survive. On a day when I just can’t stand my wife, nothing and no one forces me to do selflessness school with her except the extent to which I feel bound by my marriage oaths. I have good friends and family who support our relationship and will correct me (sternly, if need be) when I am being selfish towards her, but I could theoretically get divorced and no one would die or go to jail.

It takes the most initiative of all to enroll in selflessness school with a friend. They will “do fine” without you even if you completely neglect them. It is more or less socially acceptable to let a friendship that has become difficult wither away. Friends are, after all, supposed to be there for you, right?

If we took notice of all the opportunities that exist around us to go to selflessness school, we would not just call parenting and marriage hard work. We would be willing to call friendship hard work. We would be willing to call living in the city hard work. We would call doing your job rightly hard work. But we would consider it hard work that is worth doing because of the impact it has on our hearts.
So all that to say – I think going to selflessness school is probably the most important thing to do in life, but it is also the very hardest thing to do. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Christians tend to romanticize the image of the cross because of what Christ did with it, but to first-century Jews under Roman domination, this is the same as Jesus saying today “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, strap himself into the electric chair every morning, and follow me.”

To really love my child, my spouse, my friend, or my neighbour, I have to put to death my willful self that wants what I want when I want it. This is extraordinarily hard. It feels like I am dying a little bit inside every time I do it – probably because I am. But I take Jesus at his word that as every bit of my selfish heart is executed, it is replaced by a bit of heart that is like his – loving, wise, kind, and selfless. Ready at all times to care for the needs and wants of those that he puts in my life.

Mr. Rogers used to ask his viewers “won’t you be my neighbour?” And that was a very good question. My question for you – my friends, family, and coworkers who read this – is “won’t you go to selflessness school with me?”

I mean it.

Keeping Score

My friend Nick told me this story of the time he was hospitalized with a bad infection. It was 3am and as his body struggled to fend off impending septicemia, he was in the throes of night sweats and feverish dreams. His nurse came into the room and, seeing that he had soaked his pillow with sweat, replaced his pillow case with a clean one. In his semi-delirious state, this simple action prompted my friend to exclaim: “You’re an angel!”

There are a lot of different ways to keep score as a nurse. A lot of people go by how many lives they’ve saved. In fact, when I was a nursing student in clinicals my mom used to ask me if I had “saved any lives that day.” (Answer: “No. They’ll die of something else later. But I definitely prolonged some.”) Nick, on the other hand, always asks if anyone told me I’m an angel.

I keep score this way. So far, my score is 3.5.

It’s actually a pretty difficult metric. “You’re an angel” is not the most common expression of appreciation. And even if I allow myself the conceit that at least a few of my patients think it, it probably takes a special person to actually say it out loud. Fortunately, most of my patients are on drugs so they are all pretty special a lot of the time.

And that is why nursing is so great. You do these very, very simple things for people and it means the world to them because they are in such a vulnerable place. The very simple things that have gotten me my 3.5 points are:

-Giving my patient a cup of ginger ale with ice.
-Washing my patient’s feet. (When he thanked me, I said “I follow a guy who is big on foot washing.”)
-Praying with my patient when she was anxious.
-Helping my patient get into bed without hurting her incision. (Actually she said “You’re soooooooo niiiiiiice.” so I’m taking it as just half a point. This is also a good example of the drugs talking.)

It strikes me that it’s the easiest things that have this kind of impact on people. You don’t have to catch an impending heart attack or stop your patient’s carotid artery from rupturing with your bare hands (I wouldn’t advise doing that, anyway). Just get them something to drink. Make them feel a little more human. Be a comforting presence. Help them with a task they can’t do on their own.

We started having some electrical problems at the place we just bought. Most of the house lost power, and the circuit breaker board was slowly but surely becoming non-functional. I had no idea what was wrong, how bad it would be when we figured it out, or how much it would cost us. It dogged me like a suspicious lump that was steadily getting bigger and the doctors hadn’t figured out yet.

When the electrician came by this morning, he did some tests, adjusted some wiring, fixed the problem, and let us know that while some more work needed to be done eventually, our house was not going to blow up, burn down, or blackout in the near future.

My sense of relief was palpable. I told him “you just made me feel physically better.” Which maybe sounded really weird, but that’s how I felt, and I wasn’t even on narcotics. Here I was, Nurse Ferris, in a vulnerable place with a problem I didn’t understand, and in doing his job right, this electrician did a very simple thing that gave me great relief.

So it made me realize that I’m not in such a privileged position as I thought I was in nursing. There are a lot of ways to be vulnerable, and a lot of simple gestures that have tremendous significance when done in the right place, in the right way, at the right time. I don’t know how electricians keep score, but the one I saw today definitely gets a point from me.

we are here to be Ourselves

There’s an exercise I created for my senior thesis in nursing school. I put up a picture of a hospital patient in an intensive care unit. Clustered around the bed are the legions of medical equipment and devices used to sustain life at its most fragile moments: ventilator, cardiac monitor, IV pump, oxygen, defibrillator. A nurse is hanging an IV medication – stethoscope around her neck and a plethora of medical supplies in her many pocketed scrubs.
“What is the most important tool in this picture?” I ask. The audience’s answers vary, but eventually someone gets the one I’m shooting for, which is “the nurse.”

My mother has a little trouble with the fact that I get into cage-matches every once in a while. I’ve been training in Muay Thai for a couple years now and last night I wrote her a long email after a tough sparring session trying to capture why I love it so much. What it comes down to is this: You bring nothing into the cage but yourself – what you have made yourself capable of, what you can force your body do, the depths of fatigue, pain, and fear that your mind and your spirit have the power to overcome. The other man in the cage is not your opponent. He is your teacher and he is testing you to see, quite literally, what you are made of.

Ten months ago I became a father. It’s a wonderful adventure and it also brings up a mess of previously unknown anxieties and responsibilities. Am I making healthy choices for my daughter? Am I raising her right? Am I providing enough for my family – now and for the future? How do I balance time with her against other responsibilities? Am I pulling my weight alongside my wife in terms of child care.
At the end of the day, however, I know that none of these questions are Jubilee’s questions. My daughter wants just one thing from me. She wants me to be her Daddy; one simple thing that I will spend the rest of my life being and becoming. The world is full of fully grown adults who still mourn their fathers’ relational absence, regardless of what their father may have achieved or done for them. But a father who loves and thoughtfully cares for his children can and will be forgiven many failings and shortcomings.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. I’m still trying to figure that out, and much of it seems to be discovering all the things that I have backwards. I wasted a lot of time thinking that God wanted me to become someone else before I found out that he wants me to become myself. And lately I’m learning that even this is only part of it. We are indeed meant to become ourselves, but it is not for ourselves. We are here to be ourselves for our neighbours and for our maker.

Not to do, to act, or even to dream, but to be.