Pausing, reflecting, and savoring moments of awe can balance the frequently overwhelming demands of clinical care.
Passion in the Medical Profession | November 17, 2021 | 3 min read
By Mary Yaden, MD, and David Yaden, PhD, Johns Hopkins Medicine
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and see yourself running with them.”―Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations“
Spending countless hours in the hospital doesn’t leave a lot of time for stargazing. The overpowering iridescence of the hallways and intrusive flashing of monitors couldn’t be further from the natural beauty of the night sky, or a scenic moment usually associated with beauty or awe. However, research is identifying alternatives for experiencing awe even within the confines of the hospital.
Awe is defined as a response to being confronted with enormity, either literal, like the view from a mountaintop, and/or figurative, like a mind-blowing TED talk. Awe is a complex emotion; it’s largely positive but can also feel somewhat overwhelming. Experiencing awe has been shown to increase feelings of well-being and social connectedness, as well as enhancing altruistic behavior. This means that awe not only helps us feel good but also to do good in the world.
Recent research shows that awe is often accessed in response to other people, especially by witnessing acts of great excellence or virtue–called “interpersonal awe.” On reflection, I, Dr. Mary Yaden, can recall countless moments of interpersonal awe in medical practice. While in training, I helped with a multi-hour liver transplant. As the donor organ was secured within my patient and the exquisite suturing of the vessels concluded, the operating room stopped. The surgeon took a moment before calling out “anastomosis” and relieving the clamps that kept the waiting circulation at bay. I felt tears when I watched the grey cast of the liver transform into a healthy, pulsing, living pink. I don’t know exactly whether it was the hours on my feet, the medical prowess of the clinical team, or the recognition that this patient’s life was transformed in a moment, but I was awash in profundity and joy. I felt tiny compared to the enormous implications of a procedure where a life was changed and in which I had the honor to play some small role.
Moments like this, while fleeting, can offer pathways for awe despite the frequently 0verwhelming demands of clinical work. It may be possible to take more notice of these moments of interpersonal awe. Here are a few guidelines that may help you to capture more awe in your clinical practice:
While awe can come on unexpectedly, we must be paying attention to capture it. Practice brief moments of mindfulness throughout the day to ground in the moment.
2. Zoom out
Consider the enormity of some everyday actions. A patient’s hospital admission may be a defining moment in their life journey and seeing ourselves as a player in such an important time creates meaning.
Ask yourself, “Is there something big at this moment that I’m missing? Am I seeing something that reflects a secret beauty or reality of being alive?”
Lean into the emotion. Notice how it makes you feel about your work and other people.
While there may be no constellations for charting in the hospital, there are certainly moments that leave us moved and breathless. Practicing awe allows us to not only engage with our world differently but also appreciate the big and small moments of beauty in the hospital.
Finally, if a few moments of interpersonal awe from your own clinical work came to mind, you can record them and take a standardized awe measure here.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.