Reframing Suffering When It All Feels Like Too Much
Dr. JFW Ndikum
Author: Words of A Feather. The Mystic Musings of A Medical Man
“If that bleep goes off one more time, I swear to God I’m going to explode”.Sound
Of course, it does.
It’s you. It’s me. And it’s likely also every other doctor in today’s NHS.
We live in tumultuous times indeed.
It’s no secret that the NHS is in the midst of a transition that will herald unprecedented changes. Whether those changes will be constructive as relates to societal infrastructure is not the main purpose of this article. I’d like to focus instead, on how we can maintain our buoyancy, determination, optimism and drive, even in the face of the challenges that confront us.
I published a poetry book last August. Four parts, 170 poems, most of which had lived in the ‘Notes’ section of my mobile phone over the preceding two years. I lost that phone once and was in a state of panic until I realised that I had e-mailed each of them to myself. Thank God.
Anyway, that book chronicles a very difficult and trying period in my life. The poem begins with ‘Initiation’, moves on to ‘Despair’, transitions to ‘Hope’ and ends with ‘Light’. Those were the phases through which I passed since qualifying as a medical doctor in 2010. As I wrote in one of my poems,
“The sight of death, it does turn men
Into Philosophers, for it swift brings
That ‘Shortness of Life’ of which
The beauty of poetry lies in its ambiguity. This, of course, is perfect for an individual working in a profession where there exists a lot stigma surrounding what I experienced. We’re problem solvers so navigating life should be as easy as OSCEs right? Ha. I know, right?
The period entitled ‘Hope’ however, was probably the most formative of my entire life. I had sunk into an abyss of self-pity and despair and everything appeared bleak. It wasn’t of course, but it seemed that way. My guess is that some of you can relate.
It was around this time that I began to seriously explore the works of Christian D. Larson, a personal development author who began publishing his work just over one-hundred years ago. Larson spoke of ‘The Great Within’ and emphasised that the joy, strength, and inspiration we often seek outside of ourselves, actually exists within. Despite my cursory explorations of Eastern philosophy during medical school, this familiar concept struck a chord deeper than it ever had before.
And so began a daily ritual of reading, digesting and metabolising personal development works. At one point I went a little crazy and bought over 200 books related to personal development and Eastern philosophy in the space of 6 months. Some were ohh-kay. Others were awesome. But I learned something from each and every one of them, if only from one line for some of them. Despite their variation in content, they all emphasised two things: first, the innate beauty of life and second, the unimaginable potential we possess to contribute to the manifestation of that joy in our everyday lives. Problems are not there to break you, but to make you. Curve-balls train you to become strategic. Suffering is a crash-course in compassion. These books were a ‘Cliff Notes’ if you will, of the classes I seemed to have missed in school.
“But John, the NHS is in trouble. Jeremy Hunt is x, y, z. The Tories plan to &, %, $”. Symbolism works best I suppose, for the endless list of comments that can be made about the current geopolitical climate.
These sentiments may very well be true, but it is at times like this that we must take stock of our inner world, and as Larson emphasises, reflect on the Great Within. Every action that we take and every thought that we hold will have a reactionary reverberation in our psyches and it beholds us therefore, to be cautious about the mental commentary that we harbour.
Problems exist, but our focus should be on the tangible solutions we can bring to the table, to effect constructive change. Our situations may be dire, but what benefits us the most ? Constantly reflecting on just how sh** everything is at the moment, which is sure to lead to one place – depression. Or prescribing for ourselves a regime of meditation, exercise and positive affirmations that will allow us to think positive thoughts in the midst of the chaos that surrounds us. A chaos that negative thinking will not remedy. As a friend very bluntly put it to me once, “if you can think of one instance John, when negative thinking has benefited you, then me my guest in endlessly indulging in it”. Sometimes tough love is all you need (take that John Lennon ! 😉 )
We must be selfish about our happiness. That doesn’t always entail moving physically, but it certainly requires an inward shift:
“My patient just died – why do I have to witness suffering all the time?”, can be reframed as, “this is another reminder that I should never take anything for granted. I’ll one day run out of minutes too – am I living every moment in a way that will allow me to be at peace with myself when that day inevitably arrives?”.
“My Consultant is so mean” could be changed into, “this a reminder that if I do not focus on the person that I want to be, life can turn me bitter…and into Dr. [insert name of irascible boss here]”.
Paradoxically, it is such initial self-concern, slotted into spare pockets of time interspersed throughout the day – that neutralises feelings of powerlessness, permitting us to share a newly empowered state with the world.
Things are bad – I know. But they need not make us sad, depressed or lead us into dangerous territories of the mind. What I learned during those four years of pain was this: our emotions may very well lead us to frightening places, but our conscious minds can be the steering wheels that we use to guide us to where we want to be.
Too many doctors are inadvertently talking themselves into the darkest places and to loosely apply Buddhist terminology, this constitutes a misuse of the penetrating minds which many of us possess. A greater world begins with a greater self, so by prioritising our happiness, our joy, our serenity – rather than relegating it to the ‘back-burner’ (until after FY2, CT2, ST8, Professorship…ad-infinitum), we can be of service to ourselves and to the world in greater ways than we could ever have imagined.
Stay high in ‘spirit’!
Dr. John Ndikum graduated from Barts and The London in 2010, with an MBBS and an intercalated degree in neuroscience. During his time in medical school, he was a lead choreographer in dances for several fashion shows and was involved in the university’s Musical ‘Oliver’, in which he played the part of the Artful Dodger.In August 2016, he published a four-part collection of poems chronicling an existential crisis through which he passed, and which culminated in him developing a deeper appreciation for the classroom that is life.
John has an active interest in positive psychology and non-dual philosophy that he maintains guide him through life’s vicissitudes and continue to refine his worldview.
In the Summer of 2017, John and his wife Sophie will move to New Haven, Connecticut where he will begin his MPH at Yale University, with a concentration in Health Policy.
He is passionate about the processes underpinning equitable healthcare provision and their application to developing countries, such as his native Cameroon.