Quiet Courage

by Meghan McConnell, PhDCourage

I recently had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Arnold P. Gold Foundation Symposium, titled “Mapping the Landscape: Journeying Together.”  Over the course of my short career, I have had the opportunity to participate in many different conferences and symposia.  This one was different; it encouraged the exchange of information and ideas between individuals, allowing for a participant-driven experience, as opposed to more traditional didactic approaches.

One of the activities asked us to gather in pairs and discuss what courage means to us.  My initial thought was that courage is facing fear – the fireman who runs into a blazing building, the soldier who fights for his country, the dissenter who fights against the status quo. To me, these were representative of courage: the ability to do something that frightens us.

I was fortunate to be paired with someone who had a different perspective, one that I suspect I will carry with me for quite some time.  My partner spoke of quiet courage, a concept she couldn’t quite define, but for which she had many examples – stories told to her by her own patients.

She spoke of the immigrant father who worked as a dishwasher for 15 years so he could send his children to college, knowing full well he could be deported at any moment.

She recalled a schizophrenic patient who, even on his good days, struggled with daily tasks and social stigmas.

She spoke of a young man, dying of AIDS, who lovingly organized his own funeral to celebrate the people he loved and was leaving behind.

Quiet courage is about moving forward, one step at a time, when the circumstances are not ideal or when there is no immediate reward in sight.  This quiet courage is often overlooked, just like the individuals who exemplify it.

As I listened intently to my partner’s stories, I was struck by her own quiet courage.  Rather than modelling ‘detached concern’ with her patients, my partner had allowed herself to be impacted by her patients’ stories.  Indeed, some of these stories had occurred many years ago, and yet she recalled them in detail. To me, my partner’s willingness to allow her patients’ stories to touch her so deeply epitomizes the concept of quiet courage. Clinical interactions are filled with pain and suffering, and it is challenging to acknowledge the impact that such emotions can have on one’s own personal wellbeing.

Working with patients – people who come to see you when they are afraid and suffering – is hard work.  Patients may not always agree with you, and no doubt, there are times when you feel like giving up.  It takes a great deal of inner strength to continue to move forward in the presence of uncertainty and constant scrutiny.

I don’t think it is easy for people to see their own quiet courage. I think this is particularly true for healthcare professionals.  I suspect that my partner might not consider herself courageous.  But she stepped out of her comfort zone to tell me, a complete stranger, her patients’ stories; she carries these stories with her; and she devotes time and energy to empowering her patients.  In this short interaction with this phenomenal woman, I couldn’t help but be inspired to search for my own quiet courage: something I encourage all of us to do.

McConnellMeghan McConnell completed her PhD in cognitive psychology at McMaster University.  She subsequently completed two postdoctoral fellowships.  She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at McMaster University.  She studies how emotions influence the  training, assessment, and performance of healthcare professionals.