Every now and then in Grey’s Anatomy, the patient starts to fail during an intense surgery, and the doctors look intensely at each other between injecting this and cauterizing that and shocking the heart (“Clear!”) until the lead surgeon barks out an intense command for everyone to take their hands off — now — because the patient has become too unstable to continue.
At which point, there’s nothing to be done but pack the minefield of a body cavity with laps, sew him up and take him to the ICU until things stabilize, or the guy dies.
This is excruciating for the surgeons, who are intensely determined to use their extraordinary skill, exceptional intelligence and unbelievable good looks to save this grievously injured or ill person. They hate to quit trying.
These very exciting moments in the show look like this …
… but without the guy pointing the gun at the doctors, which I understand is also a common situation during intense surgeries, and for which dedicated seminars are taught in medical school right after the Makeover and Intensity classes.
Anyway, I especially like these Grey’s episodes because they remind me that persevering — a quality I greatly admire — isn’t always wise. Sometimes our skills or knowledge just aren’t up to a particular challenge; sometimes, a relationship or situation does not respond favorably to our best efforts. Some matters, it seems, are beyond our abilities to constructively influence, and persisting nonetheless is apt to hurt rather than help.
That’s why the Hippocratic Oath includes a promise rendered popularly if not entirely accurately as primum non nocere: First, do no harm. It’s a prime tenet of Buddhism, as well, but it’s been a difficult lesson for me to learn. I have never forgotten the counsel of a long-ago therapist who saw how my tenacity, my determination to fix, was hurting rather than helping a close relationship: Don’t just do something, she said. Stand there.
Stand there. Take your hands off and — in the words of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn — let be if you cannot let go. Pack that sucker with gauze, leave it in as good a shape as you can and walk away until things stabilize and the way forward — if any, if ever — becomes clear.
Tough as this is, it’s sage advice. Because in truth, things never really turn out; they just keep turning. And all along, our understanding and vision are limited: The good outcome we push doggedly to achieve turns out to be not so good, after all; what appears to be an impasse — or even a failure — can, if let be, reconstitute in its own time and manner into something finer than we ever imagined.
Or, the patient just dies. But at least you weren’t wielding the scalpel.