At first glance you might not think there’s much reason for an essay on health care workers in West Africa in a space typically reserved for considerations about creativity. But I’m hoping that by the end of this blog you’ll see why the subject gets a temporary pass.
I recently spent some time with a young, passionate emergency care nurse about to ship out with Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors without Borders. She’s headed to Guinea for a six to eight week deployment on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak. Not yet thirty, she’s already an MSF veteran in parts of the world that most Americans can hardly find on a map, to say nothing of being able to imagine themselves working there for a single day. To meet her you’d never know. She presents a sophisticated intelligence matched with a no-nonsense, down to Earth seriousness. She’s cosmopolitan, polished, and smart. She can also go toe to toe with armed intruders while taking care of critically injured patients in a third world field hospital.
My friend talked about what’s likely in front of her these next few weeks. I listened closely, and suddenly there it was. There was a stirring restlessness, a need to do something authentic. It was like a secret handshake, a code word in wartime, a pheremone. It filled the space like cold, clear morning air. Where poets organically refract the world through word and imagery and acute observation, my friend the nurse considers her own life in the context of being immediately, intimately useful to other people’s lives. To be clear, this isn’t a trait that applies to every creative person, or every socially minded health care worker. Not everyone lives his or her life compelled by ideas, compelled to create something that didn’t exist a moment before. But when you meet someone who’s fueled by the will and ability and the discipline to take an idea and act on it, it doesn’t matter if that person is a painter, a poet, a baker or a nurse. Creativity is about remaking the world, always.
My friend the nurse doesn’t do what she does because it’s comfortable, or easy, or even because others will like or respect or even understand her actions. My friend does these things because they’re what she does to make her life make sense. They’re actions that express themselves authentically. They're not necessarily easy, however. The fact that she’s good at what she does is as much a function of her motivation to immerse herself as it is conscious awareness that what she’s doing is something real and useful.
She is not stressed about the job, or at least not exactly. Anticipatory? Sure. Saturated? Completely. Focused? Of course. But stressed? That’s not the radiating vibe. She’s ready to get in the middle of the thing and do it. By doing it she creates something real. By creating something real she is alive.
Stop for a moment and consider just how many people you know get through their days, one after the other, without being fully alive.
Will she become stressed on this deployment? Will she struggle? During her last deployment when a young, enraged tough guy with a gun and a grenade ran into her operating theater in a desperately poor third world field outpost, the tension needle went to eleven. When she got in the guy’s face and personally threw him out, she didn’t run through all of the hypotheticals in advance. She didn’t measure the estimated ROI. She improvised, as invested and integrated in that singular moment of her life’s as any musician or actor feeling rich emotion submerged in the deepest moments of a performance.
There’s an art to living well. You can screw it up; you can miss your life; you can distract yourself; you can trivialize it. Not everyone understands the difference between just getting by and a life well lived. What’s more, we can pursue a meaningful life, even touch it sometimes, and then lose our handle on it. That’s natural, but guess what? In moments of stillness, we can rediscover our lives and reengage them. As we do so over and over, the process gets easier. For the wise ones it also becomes easier to hang on. Hard things--like the balancing act of the requisite stupid, necessary stuff of laundry and checking accounts--get done without consuming as much brain space. (The laundry isn't hard, but the balancing act in relation to more important things can be.) The art of living is a learnable skill. Most certainly not everyone needs to do something as dramatic as fighting Ebola on the front lines. Not every traditional artist needs to write an opera or make a $100 million movie either. As Yoda put it, “Size matters not.” It’s an important point. The drama of grand gestures sometimes makes people think that their more modestly scaled efforts are useless. Not true. An artful life is not about the garnering of applause. It’s about the authenticity of expression. It’s about clarity of the effort.
Why go to a medical hot zone, a place with a lethal disease, in a city barely holding itself together, in one of the poorest, most corrupt countries on Earth? Why go? Why go? Why go?
For some it’s because you want to do something with your life that matters. You go because your life is your own art project, and to create a life is to create something of value, something of meaning that transcends the ordinary or simplistic. You go because the alternative is to live a life that doesn’t make as much sense. You go because the alternative is to let another day go by.