What's Still Here?

Medical training teaches us to become keen observers. We notice things about our patients as soon as we walk in the room: shortness of breath, anxiety, pain. We also notice changes since their last visit: weight loss, difficulty walking, advancing skin changes on their legs. We usually focus on what is different, frequently on what has been lost. Our patients, as well, most acutely feel what has been lost. “Why can’t I run anymore without my knee swelling up?” they ask. “Why can’t I remember things the way I used to?” they lament. Life often feels like a series of losses and attenuations as a result.

Recently, a caring aesthetician I know shared her sadness that one of her longstanding clients, a brilliant professor, had developed Alzheimer’s disease. The client had become increasingly confused and could no longer remember her. Although they had a pleasant conversation during the woman’s treatment, the aesthetician was distraught over the change in her client’s mind and their relationship.

very insightful medical student provided a different perspective on the experience of loss. As her grandmother developed increasingly severe dementia, the student also focused only on what was no longer there. Early on, while her grandma remembered who she was, she was frustrated by the repeated questions and inability to remember her answers. Later, although they could still carry on a meaningful conversation, she felt hurt that her grandma could no longer remember who she was. In the latter stages, she was saddened that her grandma was no longer able to converse, although they could still sit and hold hands. In each stage, she focused only on what was gone – and not on what was present. How different could the experience have felt, she wondered, if she were able to accept that something had been lost, but still appreciate what was remaining?

As we begin this new year, can we decide to look at our life through the lens of appreciation? Can we view each circumstance realistically, not sugarcoating our difficulties and losses, and still acknowledge and focus on the goodness that exists in our lives? As the wise saying goes, “happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” Psychology Today cites studies showing that when we deliberately cultivate gratitude, we increase our wellbeing, levels of energy, optimism and empathy. As we set our intention to notice not just what has been lost, but what we still appreciate and cherish in our lives, we might be developing our most important skill of observation.