Hiking uphill along a strenuous stretch of mountain trail in Vermont, I happened along an older woman hiking downhill. I estimated her to be in her early 80s. My first thought was, “Oh my goodness. I need to help this woman. This is far too strenuous for her. She might fall, get lost or dehydrated.” But I quickly realized she was moving perfectly fine, steady and balanced with 2 hiking sticks, sturdy shoes, a backpack (perhaps with water, a snack, and a phone), a hat, and sunscreen visible on her nose. I didn’t have hiking sticks, a snack or a hat. She had a smile on her face. She greeted me with cheer and moved along with the gait of a nimble mountain goat. And that’s when it hit me.
Why did I assume she needed my help? Why did I assume she lacked the ability and fortitude for the hike? Why did I immediately see myself as her protector? In fact, I am always inspired by older people who are active, agile, and adventurous. I want to be that person in my later years. And yet, I imagined her as feeble, incapable, in need of my help and protection. I based my assessment on the assumption that she was weak. And in that assumption, I never considered her strengths.
As nurses, are we programmed to see problems or opportunities? Do we assume weakness in our patients, our colleagues, our students? Does caring mean we place ourselves in a privileged position over others? If so, what is lost by this weakness-based approach? Better put, what could be gained by a strengths-based approach? Consider approaching patients, colleagues, students with the assumption that they bring strengths to every situation. Instead of uncovering problems to solve, we can assess circumstances, identify strengths, and collaboratively define opportunities to optimize those strengths rather than focus on weaknesses. Rather than feeling disabled, dis-empowered or disrespected, our patients, our colleagues, our students, even we, feel strengthened, empowered, energized, and respected. This is not a call to ignore problems and certainly not a call to ignore emergency situations that need immediate intervention. It is a difference in approach between “What is the problem and how can we fix it?” to “What is this circumstance, what is going well, and how can we do more of it to restore balance?”
Perhaps this is a trivial nuance in thinking but plenty of positive psychology and brain science literature point to the power of positivity and strengths-based approaches to situations. It so occurred that I began drafting this blog post just as Adeline Falk-Rafael’s post, Peace as a Prerequisite for Health, appeared on the NurseManifest blog site. I cannot help but draw connections to the deep reflections in her bittersweet post. While reflecting on recent outbreaks of violence and civil unrest, she calls attention to courage and peace, social justice and equity as positive antidotes to violence and antecedents for health. Her photo choice: Lesha Evans, a Black female nurse confronting law enforcement in poised courage beautifully illustrates the power of positivity in creating peace and health. She chose to emphasize a strengths-based approach.
I am inspired by Lesha Evans. I am inspired by the vitality of the woman I passed along the trail. I admire their strength, their passion, and their commitment to living fully in peace and positive strength. I have to admit, even as I recognized the strength of the woman on the trail, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her on my way back down…just in case… Once again, she showed me that strength and courage win. I never saw her again…she was well along her way to greener pastures by the time I completed my descent. I owe a debt of gratitude to this woman on the trail for giving me the opportunity to engage in critical reflection and to find professional inspiration in an unlikely place. I really do want to be that woman hiking the trail like a nimble mountain goat when I am in my 80s and I hope the younger whippersnapper who passes me thinks, “Wow! I want to be like her one day!”
A special note of gratitude goes to Peggy Chinn for her words of wisdom and encouragement in the development of this post.