L. Dorko, P.T.
Nearly ten years
ago a patient of mine suggested I listen to a recording of a Welsh poet named
David Whyte. I agreed to do so, and I haven’t really been the same since.
After hearing this man recite poetry, explain it and bring it to life with his
unique delivery, an entire world of literature opened up for me and I entered.
I’m there still.
Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as
a Pilgrimage of Identity
(Riverhead Books 2001) is Whyte’s second book of prose and seems to be written
specifically with our profession in mind. At least, that’s what I was thinking
at the end of every chapter.
On the very first page Whyte repeats
an idea of William Blake’s that sets the tone for the rest of the book. It is
that work at its best provides us with a sense of dedication Blake called “a
firm persuasion.” This is a feeling that what we do is right for ourselves and
good for the world at exactly the same time. Think of that. Is this what your
work has become? How many therapists do you know who feel this way about their
time in the clinic? Perhaps many of us have a sense of this, but find that the
feeling is rare and remarkably short lived. Whyte offers a solution, but, as you
might imagine, the path toward a firm persuasion is neither obvious nor easy.
Whyte tells us “Work at its best is
the arrival in its outer form of something intensely inner and personal.” This
sort of thinking resides most commonly in the world of art where every effort is
directed toward the growth of creativity. In a clinic where success is measured
in much the same way it would be on the production line of any factory unique
and personal solutions to clinical problems might easily be seen as
counterproductive and thus the opportunity to feel and express the art of our
practice is lost. With that, Blake’s firm persuasion becomes little more than
a rumor and, eventually, nothing more than an old, unrequited desire of the
veteran therapist who does nothing more than follow protocols and fill out forms
all day. I’ve met a few. When I travel to teach I commonly meet therapists who
express their frustration and disappointment with their current job. Clearly
they do not feel that their personal worth as an individual is honored or used
there. They are a licensed body only, and thus easily replaced.
As I said, the solution to this
problem is not easy. Whyte tells many tales of the “courageous
conversations” that he and many others have had at the beginning of the road
upward toward a kind of work that engages us, expresses us and leads to the
triumph of human existence that work might become. These conversations often
produce conflict, ostracism, ridicule and, ultimately, isolation. An “unknown
sea” is the perfect metaphor for the kind of passage anyone hoping to find
their firm persuasion must make, and I feel certain that every innovative
therapist would agree that it might have been easier (to say nothing of more
lucrative) to go along with the traditions of care they first encountered. But
if your heart isn’t in it because your mind cannot accept what you see as
mistaken and ineffective methods, work no longer represents a calling or means
by which you might discover who you truly are. Instead, it becomes a job that
reminds you again and again of who you truly aren’t. There is a remarkable
passage near the end of the book that might describe many PT departments today:
“What we have to confront in the present workplace is the reluctance to engage
in conversations that really invite the creative qualities hidden deep inside
each human being. It is a reluctance born of the knowledge that by inviting
creativity and passion, the organization must also make room for fear and
failure.” Here I feel Whyte not only refers to our management and treatment
skills, but to our patient’s movement toward recovery as well.
My copy of this book contains
numerous markings, underlined statements and lines I will repeat to my classes
for years to come. Get a copy of your own, and see what it might offer you.