What’s Your Why? The Link Between Purpose and Resilience
By Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, Chief Happiness Officer, VETgirl
I remember that day far too well.
It was mid-afternoon in the veterinary hospital on an otherwise “normal” day. These were the days of pagers, and receiving rapid fire pages in short succession was always a red flag. The pages poured in to get to the ER, pronto, where I was informed that a long-time hospital client and her family were on their way to the hospital. They were being escorted by emergency personnel who were transporting the remains of the family’s pets. All of the canine and feline members of the family had perished in a house fire earlier that day – and the family, who had been out of the house at the time, wanted to a chance to say their goodbyes.
My mind raced. What could be done to support this family through this tragedy? As I looked around me, I also became worried about my colleagues, many of whom knew this family – and these patients – well. It was a long and emotionally-fraught afternoon, filled with tears and guilt and questioning (“Why them? Why us? Why now?”). It was also filled with the sensory overwhelm that comes from sitting with survivors who have to engage the difficult task of identifying victims. I will never forget the gut-wrenching sights, smells and stories that came with those few hours that seemed to go on forever.
And then, just like that, it was over. And all of us needed to find a way to move toward the next emergency, and then the next one, and then toward some sort of solace as our shift came to a close. I stumbled toward my car, called one of my mentors (with the opening line, “You won’t ****ing believe what happened today”), and began the process of making sense out of things that inherently make no sense. There’s no good reason for any family to struggle with the pain of having all of their pets taken from them in a literal flash. No. Good. Reason.
Even as I recall that moment, the echoes of one of my teachers ring through my mind: “Struggle, without meaning, is just suffering.” Sit with that for a moment… because it’s true.
Humans are meaning-making machines.
Humans excel at constructing stories out of even seemingly insignificant interactions and events – it’s how we are wired. This capacity — to seek and create meaning — is also what we rely on when all else fails to soothe our hearts and minds. We reach, sometimes long and far, to figure out the “how’s,” if only in an effort to prevent something horrible from happening again. We look for a bigger “why,” something to propel us forward even in the darkest of moments. And this is how people heal. We heal through meaning and purpose, because it gives us a reason to push onward.
“Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” – Stephen Hawking
People who choose to work in service professions often do so because they are propelled by a deep sense of purpose. The desire to be of service is a calling, and that calling is what allows us to walk (or run) toward the chaos and suffering we often see. It is important to remember this when we are in the presence of suffering we cannot alleviate, when we don’t have the resources to make things better, or we just can’t hear another painful story. In these moments, we can be buoyed by the “why’s.” We can gently release the impulse to fix, replacing it with a reminder to simply show up with the fullness of our hearts and minds. You see, being a witness to someone else’s struggle is often enough – because being seen with compassion, even in our darkest hours, is a universal human need.
And so on that complicated and angst-filled afternoon so many years ago, I was reminded that even though I couldn’t take away this family’s pain, I could bear witness to it. Even though I couldn’t take away the grim task of identifying victims and preparing them for burial, I could hold out my hand for struggling colleagues and companion them through both the work and the tears. I could treat them – and myself – gently after struggling through the human experience of being a caregiver to others in pain. I could (and continue to) remember that this is the “why” that brought me to this vocation: not to solve all the problems, or to heal all the hurts, but to bring a little bit of humanity and light to a world that has no shortage of struggles.
On your most challenging days, when nothing goes right and the overwhelm catches up with you, remember this: show up and embody your “why.” Your why is enough.