By Patricia Lück, MB ChB(MD), MPhil PallMed, MSc MedHum
Archbishop Desmond Tutu died Christmas Day, December 25th, 2021. Many in the Mindful Practice community know of him from a quote used in one of our presentations taken from an interview in the documentary I Am. In it he tells us “We are because we belong;” as individuals we are utterly vulnerable and dependent on those around us to survive and thus belong to one another as a collective being. In this, Desmond Tutu challenges the dominant western paradigm of privileged self-interest that seems to have deeply pervaded these past two years of loss, grief, and struggle at all levels, including the micro levels of our personal family and clinical practice lives, and at the macro level of structural social and health inequities, environmental crises, and the ever expanding pandemic.
I never personally met the Archbishop but have heard him speak many times, including the time I photographed him sitting with Jon Kabat-Zinn. This was in 2008 when Jon was visiting South Africa and teaching for our growing MBSR community there. During his visit, he was invited to speak at an event with Desmond Tutu. In hindsight these two men’s teachings, fierceness, and generosity of spirit have influenced me deeply.
Over the many years that I have cultivated a mindfulness practice, I have noticed a growing, embodied stillness that has aided not only me but also my patients during times of great suffering and challenge. I first noticed the capacity for steady stillness during times of crises while I was a medical student in Cape Town. These crises were not only medical, but also political, communal, and social as friends, colleagues and I were caught up in the anti-apartheid protests of the day, each one of us consciously or unconsciously taking actions to either support or ignore this struggle. As someone with a deep belief in health equity and justice since I was a young child – a belief that led me to a career in medicine itself – the choice to volunteer for and eventually lead our student led community health clinics during this time of great upheaval seemed inevitable.
This capacity to choose steadiness and stillness in the presence of deep suffering is one that I further cultivated while training in MBSR and Palliative Medicine – both nascent practices in South Africa at the time. Those were also the days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which were a constant reminder and witnessing of the deepest wounds and injustices that were visited on the majority throughout the Apartheid years. And throughout that process we also witnessed the deep humanity, steadiness, generosity, and humor of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Archbishop, time and again, chose forgiveness and restoration over blame and retribution, even though the work of restorative justice and the calls for action that the commission began remains incomplete to this day.
It was his fierce steadiness during times of injustice and his fundamental generosity of spirit toward others that I witnessed, not only during the years of Apartheid, but also over the years following. They have stayed with me and resonate deeply within me from the experiences of my own family during the dark war years in Germany. They, in turn, help me remain steady as we continue to face the head winds of this ever evolving pandemic, through the increasingly turbulent manifestations of climate change, and the many necessary social changes that lie ahead. Through all these challenges, I hope that the generosity of presence and love at the heart of mindfulness practice and the work toward good and equitable medical care sustain your journey throughout the coming year.
As we transition into this new year of 2022, I wish to share the words of URMC second year medical student, Zonia Ali, who took the course Mindfulness and Medicine: Showing Up for When it Matters, a medical school elective I taught this past semester, and wrote a reflective rondeau for her final assignment* – an ode to our eternal capacity to breathe, note, and begin again, treating ourselves with generosity, care, and kindness, at all times.
Begin again, my friend, as night grows.
The plans made at dawn laid low
By small things that all together
Broke a promise of “now” to “whenever.”
But let’s be fair, there was no way to know.
We are not prophets. As time flows
Forward without fault, it cannot be slowed
Or sped up or cater to your leisure.
But you can begin again.
When memory makes a painful show
Or prediction swirls you to and fro,
Remember that your now is untethered;
Your next choice can be whatever.
Hear your breath, quiet and slow.
Let’s begin again, my friend.
*Thank you to Zonia Ali for allowing me to include her lovely poem in this essay.