Coping with loss of control

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We are used to a sense of control over our lives and our day to day decisions. I can choose when to go to the shops, what colour to paint my house, what plants to plant in the garden. I can choose what level of risk I’d like to take: whether it is the speed I travel downhill on my bike or running the quiet streets at night. Covid-19 is limiting our control and choices. I can continue to choose what plants to plant, but I can’t wander around a garden centre to choose them. I can choose when to go to the shops but only once a week. I have been told that to gather as a family is too risky and at work, I am told where I have to wear PPE and where I don’t. It is no longer my responsibility to consider for myself what risk I am willing to take. We are all asked to conform, which for a society that celebrates diversity and individualism is deeply counter-cultural.

Added to this is the top-down decisions about where you will be redeployed to, enacting plans by seniors that may differ from your usual practice and changing rotas. This forces us to become more submissive in a profession that encourages flat hierarchies and discussion. It suppresses the medical instinct to lead, challenge and perfect through debate. The changing work patterns and locations remove the support structures that give us a sense of control. Simple things like not being able to access the changing rooms because you don’t know the code; not knowing where to make a cup of tea; not being able to grab a glass of water because you are in PPE, all serve to amplify these micro stresses and frustrations. We are learning to accept adequacy because perfection cannot be achieved. This too is stressful and frustrating for those who like to feel in control and perform to the highest level (which is most doctors and nurses I know).

The concept of control over our lives is an interesting one. Do we really have it, or is it just an illusion? If we do have it is it only over the mundane – what to eat, what to wear; or is it deeper – do I control who I am, can I change whether someone will live or die? The author of Ecclesiastes points out that whatever we do, the sun will continue to rise each morning, the rain will end up in the sea and the seasons will change. Knowing that the fixed patterns of the world continue despite the chaos around us gives a sense of stability. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus applies this metanarrative to our individual lives. He calls us to pray each day ‘give us our daily bread’ and not to worry about where our clothes and food will come from. He reminds us that all that we have comes from God and is under his control. However, Jesus ends this sermon with a warning that if we don’t act upon his words, we are like the man who builds his house upon the sand. So, we do have some choice and control over our lives.

The Bible has many cautionary tales of failure and heartache when leaders choose to use what limited control they have to do things their way. When God’s plan for our life coincides with ours, it is easy to think that we have ceded control to Him. When we are asked to do things that make no sense to us, our pride bucks against this, and we resist. It exposes our sinfulness just below the surface. Simple obedience to rules that aren’t harmful but appear senseless allows us to practice humility. The current top-down approach at work reminds me of the officer training I received at Sandhurst. There is no good reason why water cans need to be positioned in a particular place on a shelf, but it teaches cadets to obey, to think of themselves less in order to become part of the greater whole that is the army. Obeying guidance on PPE in a non-grumbling manner helps the nurses to feel like the doctors are working alongside them. By supporting the senior nurses and setting an example, we can shift the mood from frustration to confidence in our safety. We become a greater whole as a ward team rather than individuals with our own agendas.

Covid-19 challenges us to put others first and to obey instructions we don’t fully understand. Learning to respect those above us is important. Paul reminds us that all authority comes from God, and so we are called to respect and obey. Knowing that our foundations are built upon the rock that is Jesus Christ allows us to humbly acquiesce to these requests. As I reflect on my experience of obeying instructions, on where I need to be and in what level of PPE, I am struck by the opportunity it brings to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit. We are called to love our colleagues and bosses by peacefully obeying the commands given to us by others. To bring joy in doing so in a non-grumbling way and being patient as things change for the umpteenth time. We can be kind and good to our colleagues by facilitating their breaks and providing a positive environment to work in. I can be gentle in my challenge if a challenge is required, and it even allows the practice of self-control as I am neither able to eat, drink or pee in PPE! We may have lost control over many aspects of our lives, but we retain control over how we respond to this and are comforted by the knowledge that ultimately God holds all things in the palm of his hand.

Alice Gerth is an Anaesthetic Registrar in East England


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