The Worry Tree

Doesn’t it feel like we always have a bit more on our plate as the end of the year approaches?

I don’t know about you, but it seems that, suddenly, patients appear out of the woodwork. They want to schedule surgeries, physical exams or their annual mammograms.

Maybe it’s because they’ve paid their deductibles for this year, or they have a bit of extra time off at the end of the month.

Trouble is, other patients–the ones who came in at the end of September–are already on your schedule, and there’s no room to fit in the new ones.

And they often grumble that they can’t be squeezed in before the end of the year.

When this happens, I try to remember the story of the Worry Tree. I thought you could use the reminder at this time of year, too:

Two men, Alex and Sam, had really tough jobs in construction. Each day brought more unexpected drama. One day, their equipment broke down, requiring a break in the day and a trip to the parts store to fix it.

The next day, freezing rain required they postpone their day’s activities. This resulted in them having to return for the next two weekend days to catch up.

Alex and Sam had known each other for about five years. They met on the job and visited over lunch. Alex was in his early 40s. He was always looking for the next best thing. He lived for the moment. He was surprised he had been at his current construction job for so long. He didn’t really love it, but the money was pretty good. So, despite the many frustrations, he stayed.

Sam was almost 70. He had followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the construction crew right out of high school. He was the calm one on the job site. Everyone looked to him for guidance when things went awry. He was always the voice of reason.

One day, after a particularly long and grueling shift, Sam invited Alex over to his home for dinner. This was the first time Alex had been invited to Sam’s house. Alex was glad to have a home-cooked meal for a change and he readily accepted.

As the men entered Sam’s home, Sam stopped at a small tree at the edge of the driveway, near the kitchen door. Just for a moment, Sam gently touched one of the leaves of the tree. He seemed to sigh. Then, he entered his home with Alex.

Earlier that day, the head supervisor at the construction site yelled at Sam over something that was not his fault. As usual, Sam responded calmly and took it all in stride.

Alex noticed Sam’s unusual behavior with the tree but said nothing.

Later, after dinner, Alex mustered up the courage to ask Sam why he paused at the tree.

Sam set down the remote and turned to Alex. He nodded slowly, trying to decide if he should let Alex in on his ritual.

“Well, it’s like this,” began Sam. “I used to come home all wound up from the day’s hassles. I would walk right in and my wife, who had been taking care of my elderly mother all day, would be tired.

“She would want to talk to me about her day and share any problems. I just couldn’t listen. I would end up picking a fight or being short with her,” he said. “What I needed before I walked in was to have a minute to leave my work troubles behind me.

“It occurred to me one day as I was walking in that the tree at the end of the driveway would be a better recipient for my worry and woes. So, rather than take it out on my wife, I stop each day on my way inside and transfer all my worries to that tree, with a touch of my hand,” he said.

“You wouldn’t believe it but it has really turned my home life around. Instead of growling at my wife and family, I look forward to hearing about their day. It kind of wipes the slate clean of the day’s worries,” Sam said.

In my house, there’s a large houseplant just inside the entrance from the garage. It’s the perfect place to stop and let the worries slide out of my head, into my hand, and on to the leaf of that plant.

Sometimes, my hands are full of grocery bags and briefcases. On those days, just a nod will do. My plant knows its job.

The next morning, if I choose, I can pick those worries right back up and bring them back to work with me.

Or, I can shrug, and like Sam, take a deep breath and let them go.

CATEGORIES: Blog on December 9, 2013 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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  1. Pingback: You Can’t “Should” Your Way Through Doctor Burnout | End Physician Burnout Love Medicine Again

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