The Final Stages of the Hero’s Journey for the Frontline Midwife

In a previous post, I discussed the story of Anna Kent as a midwife volunteering in South Sudan in terms of the first 8 stages of the Hero’s Journey.  What I will discuss now is her Sudan story expressed in terms of the final stages of the hero’s journey (Stage 9-12).  I’ll be drawing again on her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe, in which she tells her story in graphic detail.

The final four stages of the hero’s journey – stages 9 to 12

The final four stages of her hero’s journey in South Sudan were deeply formative and life-changing and enabled Anna to develop a new perspective, skills and determination to help others in need wherever they were in the world:

9. Reward – there is no doubt that Anna emerged a stronger person as a result of overcoming personal challenges, including self-doubts and questioning of her obsession with volunteering.  The reward, too, that she experienced involved saving the lives of mothers, children and babies.  However, she had to deal with the sense of guilt she felt for the death of baby Mariam.  James tried to reassure her that she was not responsible for the death of the baby – in his words, “it was everyone in the world’s fault”.  She accepted intellectually that “every aid worker has a patient they carry in their conscience”.   Emotionally, though it was a continuous challenge to overcome the sense of guilt which pervaded her nightmares as she relived the traumatic event.  Unfortunately, our brains carry a negative bias – we see the negative much more strongly than the positive.  For a time, Anna found that her negative thoughts overwhelmed her rewarding thoughts – her personal satisfaction that she had saved many lives who otherwise would have died without her skilled and brave intervention.

10. The Road Back – this is both a physical journey and a metaphorical one.  On the physical level, it involves returning to her “ordinary world” – life with her boyfriend Jack in their comfy home in Nottingham.  The metaphorical aspect relates to being comfortable with her new self in an environment that is starkly different on every dimension to the one she was leaving in South Sudan.  It also meant dealing with the grief of leaving her mentor, James, her colleagues and the Sudanese people who she grew to love and admire for their courage, gentleness and stoicism.  Her short recreation spells during her volunteering in South Sudan forewarned her of the pending difficulty of the “road back”.  She found on her brief recreation trips that she could not share with Jack the horrors and traumas she had experienced and realised that she was totally lacking in libido.  Friends would ask about the exciting bits of her story but all she could share were her stories about snakes, not the reality of the poverty, harshness, and deprivation of the basic rights of women in South Sudan.  She found that she and Jack had so little to talk about, and their time together involved lots of silence as Anna tried to come to grips with crossing the threshold back into her former life. 

11. Resurrection – on her return home Anna broke off her relationship with Jack and moved to her parent’s home.  This created significant stress for her as she was unable to talk to her parents about her Sudan experiences or her reasons for breaking up with Jack – both these topics were too raw and traumatic.  In speaking with James her mentor, she shared her angst and he informed her that he had experienced similar dislocation and disorientation on his return from volunteering abroad.  James suggested that he made the mistake of “trying to be the person I once was when that person has gone”.  Anna recognised that everything changes with overseas service in a different culture and land where deprivation is rife – your values and perspectives change and you see “luxuries” and waste with new, intolerant eyes.  The way home for her involved a dying to the old person she once was and becoming a new, stronger, values-driven person. 

12. Return with the Elixir – another phase in Anna’s transition to her new persona began with entering a share house with two other nurses.  What she found was the ability to party together and share their experiences in a way that was cathartic.  Out of this period came a very strong resolution by Anna to build on her newly acquired midwife capabilities.  She enrolled in a midwifery degree at Nottingham University and had a very rewarding and enlightening work experience in Ethiopia as a student midwife.  She felt stronger and better prepared for subsequent volunteering missions involving Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 and Bangladesh working with Rohingya refugees – and these experiences entailed different journeys with new challenges and companions (as discussed in her book). 

Reflection

Throughout her hero’s journey in Sudan and beyond, Anna had to face her traumas which had “many heads” and in the process develop her resilience.  An experienced volunteer nurse, Anita, had told her “you’re gonna have to work out how to sit with these painful feelings without reacting to them”.  Like James, Anita suggested that meditation would be helpful as well as focusing on what has been achieved, not what her inner critic perceived as a “failure”.  James even suggested that Anna meditate for “an hour every day” and often encouraged her to be in the moment and experience what was before her – e.g., children playing with kites made from sticks, and the earth glowing from the setting sun. 

Anna demonstrated that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation (no matter how difficult we find it) and other mindfulness practices such as being in the moment, we can learn to regulate our emotions, deepen our self-awareness and develop resilience.

__________________________________

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness on the Path of a Hero’s Journey

Anna Kent has provided a thought-provoking memoir in her book, Frontline Midwife: My Story of Survival and Keeping Others Safe.  The “frontline” theme of her memoir enriches our understanding of this concept.  Anna’s story recounts how she undertook nine months service with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) in South Sudan – where the population had suffered civil war for fifty years, with ongoing outbreaks of conflict despite a peace settlement.

Anna whose background was as a nurse in a hospital Emergency Department (ED) in the UK found herself as an accidental midwife.  There was no one else available to do the task because there were no trained midwives in South Sudan at the time because of the civil war and its impacts.  As I read her “heart-wrenching tale”, I recalled Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey

Anna’s story is told with unassumed humility, raw emotion, and acknowledgement of her fears, frailties and vulnerability.  As nurses tend to do, she provides graphic descriptions of the medical challenges she confronts and provides a warning at the front of the book in terms of potential triggers for people who have experienced birth-related injuries, maternal death, loss of a baby or gender-based violence.

The first eight stages of the hero’s journey – a structured view

As  you read Anna’s memoir, you can begin to map Joseph Campbell’s twelve stages of the hero’s journey throughout her account.  I have attempted to link her story to the first eight stages in this blog post:

  1. Ordinary world – Before her journey, Anna enjoyed a comfortable life with her kind and musically talented boyfriend, Jack, and a home in Nottingham which included “an airy, high-ceilinged bedroom”.  Her normal professional world was that of a highly qualified ED nurse at the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham, where she coordinated a major trauma unit.  To prepare herself for her work in South Sudan, she undertook a number of voluntary shifts in the maternity unit while on leave, completed a diploma in tropical nursing and volunteered for a brief placement at a Zambian Hospital in a rural district.  Additionally, she completed a pre-departure course conducted in Germany by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
  2. Call to adventure: Ever since an early age in her childhood, Anna felt the call to do something about the suffering and pain she saw every day on TV and in the newspapers.   She felt a strong urge to help alleviate the overwhelming suffering she observed, especially that experienced by children like herself.  As an adult, she experienced “complicated reasons” for wanting to volunteer and help those in need of relief from pain and suffering.
  3. Refusal of the call:  As she was packing for her trip, Anna was almost overcome by her fears and uncertainty.  She felt ill-prepared for what lay ahead and concerned about leaving her boyfriend and all the comforts of her everyday existence.   She could acutely feel the tug to stay and not take the perilous journey involved in work in South Sudan.  She also wondered about her comfy life, “Why isn’t this enough for me?”
  4. Meeting the mentor: At Loki, in north-west Kenya, Anna underwent a week-long training that included how to survive a kidnapping, emergency evacuation, and working in isolation.  She was informed that there was no internet access because computers melted in the heat and was warned about landmines, poisonous snakes and scorpions.   She was told about her onsite mentor who she would meet on arrival in Tam, South Sudan.  All she knew about him was that he was over sixty years old and “eccentric”.
  5. Crossing the threshold: Anna crossed the threshold in more ways than one.  She flew to Tam in a rambling, old aid plane which was the main transport for people and supplies to this remote area of South Sudan.  The flight itself involved being thrown into the reality of war-torn Sudan with bandaged passengers and a woman covered in a bundle of rags lying on a stretcher on the floor of the plane.  She was dying and had an IV line connected to her arm and attached via string to the seat’s edge.  The French nurse attending to her indicated that the woman would be delivered to the MSF Hospital in Leer, the State’s capital.  Anna was very aware that back in the UK, this woman would have had the best of care including drips and monitors and would not have had to suffer the indignity of travelling on the floor’s plane.  She was informed that Tam itself suffers from a drastic shortage of pain relievers, antibiotics and other medical necessities.  After offloading the dying woman and other passengers in need of urgent medical attention, the plane flew onto Tam where Anna would be working.  Her plane eventually lands roughly on the mud landing strip that reflected the terrain – hot, barren and forbidding. 
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The heat and oppressive conditions are the enemy.  Anna meets her mentor, James, a very experienced nurse and she took an immediate dislike to him.  His joviality in the face of unmitigated horrors does not ring true and she can’t make him out.  This uncertain relationship with someone whom she will have to depend on, added to her discomfiture.  She identified an ally in another female nurse who supports her in the early days of her volunteer work in Tam.  However, she is horrified by her sleeping conditions – she is in a tent with James nearby in another tent, both located within the dirt compound that is also traversed by poisonous snakes and scorpions.   On top of this are the conditions for patients, many of whom walk many miles to attend the clinic even when seriously ill.   The waiting room is effectively the “Waiting Tree” where patients huddle under the limited protection provided by a tree within the dirt compound.  The stream of patients is endless (Anna and James treat 1,000 patients in a month) and the diversity and complexity of illnesses is scarry.   The makeshift wards are overrun with some patients having to lie on mattresses in the dirt compound.  There are continuous life and death decisions determining who will be airlifted to the hospital in Leer, given the restricted availability and limited capacity of the aid plane, and the resources at the hospital itself.  
  7. Approach to the inmost cave: The death of a young boy became a crisis point for Anna.  Her inner conflict intensified, doubts about her own capability in such trying conditions resurfaced, and she experienced emotional turmoil and overwhelm at the sight of unmitigated suffering, pain and death.  She was tense about what further trauma lay ahead.  Her salvation came in the form of lengthy, tent-to-tent conversations at night with James , her mentor.  Unburdening herself with him and talking through what she was experiencing in an open and honest way changed their relationship.  It helped her deal with her emotional crisis  These conversations  enabled her to reflect on her challenging experiences as they occurred and voice her worst fears.  He offered her reassurance and emotional support.  James introduced her to the power of mindfulness for dealing with turbulent emotions.  Anna came to value his advice, his philosophy of life and his positive psychology.
  8. Ordeal: The ultimate ordeal for Anna and the medical team arrived in the form a 16 year old pregnant girl who was in deep distress and agonising pain.  Anna played a major role in successfully delivering premature triplets and helping to save the young girl’s life as she was in acute danger of dying from excessive bleeding resulting from postpartum haemorrhage”.  This experience gave Anna the ultimate high so that she felt like a “hero” and suddenly understood why she had volunteered for such physically and emotionally draining work. She believed at the time that the high from this event would enable her to ride out the lows.  The image of the young mother walking home with her triplets in a basket on her head reminded Anna of what was possible in saving others and to value her own contribution.

Reflection

Anna’s story lends itself to mindful reading which according to Mirabai Bush “moves the reader into a calm awareness, allowing for a profound experience and understanding”.  It requires full attention, avoidance of distractions and openness to thoughts and feelings as they emerge throughout the reading process.  This story is rich in self-disclosure, replete with expression of emotions and immersive in its description of the context and physical environment.  Anna encourages us to join her on her hero’s journey into the challenging unknown and land of profound suffering.

Her efforts to grow in mindfulness through micro-practices increased her self-awareness and emotional regulation and enabled her to deal more effectively with the challenges that she had to meet on a daily basis.

__________________________________

Image by Eszter Hornyai from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Healthy Confidence or Superior Conceit?

In a previous post I discussed how mindfulness can be an effective antidote to narcissism, both in curbing our own narcissistic tendencies and managing the aftermath of a relationship with a narcissistic boss or intimate partner.  I also highlighted the work of Rick Hanson who promotes healthy confidence to achieve an effective balance between needing to be seen as superior and developing a grounded but strong sense of self.  Rick pursues this dilemma in his podcast titled, Confidence or Narcissism?  One of our challenges in developing healthy confidence is to find effective role models  – many of our leaders in government, business and sport have failed to resolve this dilemma in their public lives.

Superior conceit displayed by sports stars – defective role models

In the earlier blog post, I shared Bonnie Duran’s perspective on narcissism where she relates it to the Buddhist concept of superior conceit – the need to be “better than” or “superior to”.  Bonnie explains superior conceit in one of her podcast talks titled, Conceit and Latent Torments.

There are many instances of elite sportsmen and sportswomen displaying superior conceit and related narcissistic behaviour.  For example, narcissistic behaviours have been exhibited by international tennis stars who:

  • Abuse chair umpires and line umpires
  • Throw their racquets in disgust or anger and/or throw tantrums on the tennis court if things don’t go their way
  • Demonstrate a total lack of empathy or concern for the feelings of others
  • Boast about how much they have earned from tennis and their total asset worth (as if their financial resources are a measure of their personal worth)
  • Show a lack of respect for their opponents and/or tennis fans
  • Seek to win at any cost, even if this means cheating or bullying others.

Ash Barty – an effective role model for healthy confidence

Ash Barty has achieved more in one year (2019) than most tennis players (male or female) achieve in a lifetime.  She reached World Number 1 ranking in June 2019 (and held it at the end of the year) and won the French Open, the Birmingham Classic, the Miami Open, and the WTA Women’s Finals – Shenzhen (after being runner-up at the China Open).  Ash was the winner of a tour-topping 52 matches

On top of these achievements, she has been awarded (in 2019) the Don Award (by Sport Australia Hall of Fame), the Women’s Health Sportswoman of the Year, and the ITP Fed Cup Heart Award (for outstanding courage and distinctive representation & commitment).   The individual Don Award is for an Australian athlete “who, by their achievements and example over the last 12 months, are considered to have the capacity to most inspire the nation”.   These awards recognise that in so many ways Ash is a role model, not only for sportspeople but all of us who aspire to achieve “healthy confidence” and its attendant rewards.  Her status as a role model for other Indigenous women had been recognised in 2018 when she was named Australia’s first National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador.

Ash demonstrates healthy confidence through the following traits:

  • Resilience in the face of adversity and setbacks
  • Recognition of the need to take time out to achieve a better balance in her life and master self-management (she spent 18 months playing state-level cricket)
  • Respect for tennis opponents, officials and fans (a trait that is widely acknowledged and appreciated)
  • Empathy and compassion for others
  • Authenticity and humility
  • Amazing capacity to focus and sustain her concentration
  • Valuing and publicly recognising her support team.

Ash readily acknowledges the profound contribution of her mentor and mindset coach, Ben Crowe, in shaping her outstanding success.  Ben observed that, in addition to the abovementioned traits, Ash demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • Acknowledges that there is strength in vulnerability, rather than needing to claim or pursue perfection
  • Recognises that she can “write her own story”, not accept habituated, negative self-stories
  • Has the ability to let go of the things she cannot control while maintaining focus on what is under her control
  • Does not let tennis define who she is, but pursues her true self and values depth of character
  • Is prepared to put in the hard work to achieve continuous self-improvement and excellence.

His insightful and revealing explanation of the underlying philosophy that he has been able to impart to Ash explains why she is an exemplar of healthy confidence. 

One of the problems for us in trying to develop our own healthy confidence is that bad behaviour has dominated the attention of mainstream media, whereas Ash’s exemplary behaviour has been buried under the controversy associated with narcissistic behaviour displayed by some international tennis players.  Kate O’Halloran, writing for the ABC, expressed the hope that Ash’s French Open win will turn the spotlight more on “an exemplary sportswoman whose respected demeanour and success” has failed to attract the media attention that it deserves.

Reflection

There are some very profound lessons for us in the philosophy and behaviour of Ash Barty and some ideas about how we might develop our own healthy confidence.  However, we should be careful of joining the chorus to criticise the narcissistic behaviour of individual international sports stars while indulging in narcissistic tendencies ourselves. 

We can ask ourselves when the last time was that we made a point of highlighting our qualifications or the nature and breadth of our experience when meeting someone for the first time? When did we attempt to outdo someone else’s story (about the drama we experienced, the places we have seen or the achievements we have realised)? How often do we interrupt others’ conversations to focus attention on ourselves? When have we thought that our car/house/dress attire is better than that of someone else’s?  Do we ever measure our personal worth in terms of the assets we have or the importance of our job?  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become progressively more aware of our own narcissistic tendencies and begin to develop a healthy confidence and deep sense of our real self.

____________________________________________

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Randy Pausch on Resilience

Randy Pausch in his last lecture and in his book, The Last Lecture, had a lot to say about resilience.  His lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, designed to leave a life skills legacy for his children, focused on the realisation of childhood dreams.  Randy maintained that nothing should stop you from realising your childhood dreams and he illustrated this from his own life history.

He urged people to “never give up”.  He had wanted to go to Brown University, but they would not accept his application until he hounded them so much that they finally let him in.  His mentor, Andy van Dam, then urged Randy to do a PhD even though he himself wanted to get a job.  When Randy applied to Carnegie Mellon University to do a PhD, he was able to lodge his application with a letter of referral from his mentor.  However, he was still refused entry.

After exploring other options, he went back to his mentor who made a personal call to a colleague at Carnegie Mellon and arranged for Randy to be interviewed – which led to his admission to the PhD Program at the University.  Randy conceded that the advice to do a PhD was one of the best bits of advice he received – it enabled him to pursue his passion for “building virtual worlds”.

I had initially refused to undertake a PhD myself when I was working at Griffith University but my mentor, Professor Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, encouraged me with the comment that, “You have a PhD inside you, if you don’t get it out, you will suffer for it”.  This also proved to be sound advice.  I did not have trouble with admission, being on the staff of the University, but I had great difficulty agreeing a focal topic and obtaining a supervisor.  I persisted for 18 months, with ongoing encouragement from my mentor, and then enrolled and received my PhD six years later.  The lesson, once again, was persistence pays and resilience enables you to overcome obstacles and brick walls to achieve your goals.

Brick walls and how to deal with them

Randy prided himself in his ability to break through “brick walls” – seemingly impregnable roadblocks – in his professional and academic life:

The brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.  They’re there to stop other people.

Randy stressed the importance of having specific dreams to pursue in life.  However, he had many obstacles along the way when pursuing his own childhood dreams:

  • He wanted to experience weightlessness but was initially refused permission by NASA to join his competition-winning students to experience this sensation.  So he talked NASA into allowing him to be a reporter to accompany his students and provide positive publicity for NASA.
  • As discussed above, his persistence got him into Brown University after an intiail knockback and resilience enabled him to pursue a PhD through Carnegie Mellon University
  • He also wanted to be a Disney Imagineer and went around the formal application process (which knocked him back), by arranging lunch with a key player in Disney who enabled him to take a sabbatical with Disney Imagineering   He had initially to bypass his Dean to obtain permission to pursue what was considered a crazy idea.
  • On entry to Disney, he found that he was not accepted at first by the designers who queried what useful skills an academic could have.  However, he worked very hard at gaining acceptance and used his academic skills to demonstrate how the process for a virtual ride could be made more efficient – this gained credibility and acceptance.  He was eventually offered a fulltime job at Disney Imagineering but negotiated a one day-a- week contract as a consultant instead, so that he could continue to teach at the University.  As Randy commented, “If you can find your footing between two cultures, sometimes you can have the best of both worlds”.
  • As a child he wanted to be Captain Kirk from Star Wars but this proved to be unrealistic.  What he did achieve through creativity, persistence and hard work, was a meeting from William Shatner (Kirk in the movie) who visited Randy’s virtual reality lab to see what technology, foreshadowed on Star Wars, had been realised in practice.  Despite scoffing from his colleagues about his passion for the movie, Randy was able to prove that this passion stood him in good stead during his career.

Throughout his life and career, Randy demonstrated time and again the true nature of resilience – the ability to bounce back quickly from setbacks and the willingness to persist over time with a goal despite roadblocks and “brick walls”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can strengthen our resilience and persistence in pursuit of our goals.  We will find ways around, over or through “brick walls” to enable us to achieve our meaningful life and career goals.  Mindfulness helps us to find creative ways to achieve our goals despite setbacks and blockages.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of dimitrisvetsikas1969 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.