COVID-19 is teaching us the value of vocation

By | March 18, 2020

“Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.”
-Wendell Berry

Greetings from the hospital. It’s a ghost town around here. The roads are empty. Shops are shuttered. Churches won’t be meeting for months.

Yet the medical staff parking garage is actually rather full. We trickle into the hospital, through the deafening silence. No one talks. The air is blue and crisp. Gulls from Lake Erie call to each other, uninterrupted.

A custodian and I take turns washing our hands at a sink early in the afternoon. I smile, he nervously smiles back, and then he confides:

“I’m scared. But we’ve got to keep working.”

“That’s right! We’ve got to keep working.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you for what you are doing. What you’re doing is important.”

“You’re welcome. You’re welcome.”

A few minutes later, a cashier swipes my badge as I grab a late lunch across the hospital. Our eyes meet. We nod at each other. I speak first.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Good. We’ve got to keep our chin up.”

“That’s right. That’s all we can do.”

There is a sense of comradery here. The cashier and I are separated by generations and ethnicity, but such differences are not thought of in times like these.

We sent the medical students home early this afternoon—no more clinical rotations for a few weeks. And we’ll see after that. I joke half-seriously that we should let them graduate early so they can come help. They take it well, and don’t seem to disagree. In fact, they seem a bit let down, as if something has been stolen from them.

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These interactions remind me of the blessing of vocation, of a sense of calling, of the concept that we are called to our jobs for a purpose, to serve others in various ways. The custodian keeps the hospital clean, safe for us all. The cashier makes change, keeping hungry workers fed. No job is more important than another. We’re all in this together. The medical students, frankly, are perhaps a bit ripped off, for these are character-forming days, memorable days, once-every-100-years type of days. These are days we’ll tell our grandchildren about.

A proper concept of vocation also requires a proper concept of rest. To work and to work well for years on end requires proper rest. “Re-creation” in the truest sense of the term. Breaks from the pagers, the alerts, and the endless demands of the electronic medical record.

But this is not time to talk about rest. For now, we are blessed to work, and to work together.

Nicholas Brennecke is a neurology resident and can be reached on Twitter @nic_brennecke.

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