I Haiku, Do You?
Don't underestimate the power of a small collection of words formed into a poem to help you cope and to care
I wrote about burnout in a recent blogpost, and I was slightly surprised by the large positive reaction when I tweeted about it. It earned the most impressions since I starting tweeting in September 2015 and I am by no means a frequent tweeter with a large following:
Whether it was the use of questions, the haunting image, or both, the tweet clearly resonated with many people. On the same day as that blogpost, Jan. 4, 2016, the JACR published an article about burnout written by the ACR Commission on Human Resources. There was no coordination between the journal and the blog on this topic, but it sure seems to be on many people's minds. Just this morning, I clicked on an electronic trade magazine announcement in my inbox and wondered if there might be anything worth reading in there. And there it was: more about burnout, advising radiologists to "take up a new hobby," among other suggestions.
Our lives are bursting at the seams with work and other activities, and cramming in yet another well-intentioned attempt to counter burnout may paradoxically add to stress. Are there smaller, simpler ways to feel less stressed and more centered? Are there outlets that don't require purchasing supplies, gear, or outfits and don't involve dedicated space, equipment, or travel? I don't mean transcendental meditation or getting on the mindfulness bandwagon. For me, this takes the form of poetry. Read poems or write them or both. It doesn't matter.
I'm not much of a poet myself (see my attempts scattered in this blogpost), but I enjoy the succinct form of haiku. Haiku is to poetry what tweeting is to social media. Instead of handles, hashtags, and a limited number of characters, haiku is characterized by specific structure, only 17 syllables in per-line units of 5, 7, and 5. The constraints of this short form poem force us to discard unnecessary ornamentation.
"I didn't have time to write a- Mark Twain
short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
But whereas tweets can be pithy or thought-provoking, few strike me as salve for the stressed-out soul. In spite of their brevity, haikus can effectively capture a feeling inspired by an element of nature or a moment of beauty, often juxtaposing two images or ideas by a word or phrase that fleetingly interrupts the main flow of thought. When I read a haiku in this way, tension melts away and disruptive negative thoughts are at least temporarily brushed aside.
More than a quick, effective form of temporary stress relief, poetry is serving another purpose for me of late. As a peer reviewer, I judge a research manuscript submission on its scientific merits, the effectiveness of graphs and tables, syntax, and persuasiveness. I can be objective and get the job done. I can also review scholarly articles that discuss interesting, important, and timely concepts regarding the patient care experience and how to improve it, but this involves more subjectivity. Practicing brevity and succinctness in my spare time helps me focus (and re-focus) as my time at work is increasingly fragmented and interrupted, often resulting in the phenomenon of continuous partial attention.
Poetry also helps us reflect on the human condition, something that is vital in today's health care climate. I notice if I read or write a poem, especially one that makes me think about patient care, before or after I review an article, I engage with the material with more empathy and sensitivity. By reading JACR articles about patient-centered care (check out the Rethinking the Patient Experience series, "Professionalism: the Patient's Perspective," and "Improving Patient Care Through Inspiring Happiness"), I was able to put myself in the place of a patient without adequate pain management, suffering in silence.
The patient care experience can hit close to home, too. A few months ago, I sent a seriously ill colleague a book of poems selected by Garrison Keillor entitled "Good Poems for Hard Times." She emailed me a few weeks later:
I have been reading the book of poetry which you sent me and am enjoying many poems that are not only good as advertised but also new to me. Poems are about the length of my attention span and stamina these days so they are triply welcome. So, heartfelt thanks for thinking of me!
I did not actually know whether she enjoyed poetry when I purchased the book, and I had not realized that, in her state, her days were being lived in only poem-sized chunks. But when every scrap of energy you have is needed just to get through the day, in relentless and unending repetition, and yet you crave something more than mere physical existence, it's comforting to have poems. Maybe poems have not been shown to have healing properties, but my friend would surely attest to the power of poems both for hard times and for good days.
Is poetry as essential to life as water? No. But given their staying power over millennia, poems are an important part of our human identity, more essential to living than to just to life. Here is another bit of poetry that better expresses this idea, as poems are wont to do:
It is difficult- "Asphodel" (Excerpt), William Carlos Williams
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
So I challenge you go to your bookcase, your library, or bookstore and read some poetry. Or take a paper and pencil or, if you must, use a computer or other electronic device, and write your own poem. Then go back and read about burnout or patient-centered care or other similar topic in the JACR or another scholarly journal. Share your poem or experience in the comment section below, or just tweet a haiku for others to contemplate.