Several years ago, when I was assigned to the PICU at the children’s hospital, I noticed something unique about that particular team. At first, I experienced it as rejection. I told my supervisor, “those nurses are different than the other nurses; they are walled off and don’t want me up there.” He wisely encouraged me to give it some time. Weeks went by and still nothing. They were cold as ice. I began to think I’d never crack their shells.
And then a little girl came in. She had suffered a devastating aneurism that ultimately took her life. The week she held on included some of the hardest and most beautiful days I have ever experienced as a Chaplain. It rocked those nurses and shattered their steel-like shells into a million pieces. I held on tight. I wept with them, I prayed with them, and I stayed with them to the end. When it was all over, I was their Chaplain. They trusted me and let me in.
I have since gone through this process many times. Emergency, trauma, and intensive care nurses are some of the hardest, but eventually they allow me to join. What I have found is that these gritty, tough as nails individuals are some of the most empathetic, compassionate humans on Earth.
As a student of human behavior and psychology, I am forever wondering what makes people tick. This phenomenon of bonding through shared experience is especially fascinating to me. The good news is that there is a bunch of research out there on it. Turns out that the heightened empathy thing is not a fluke either. Trauma especially has a way of bonding us together.
I won’t go into all the details, but basically, part of the system that helps calm us down after stress gives us a hearty dose of oxytocin (the same hormone that bonds mother and child during breastfeeding). Oxytocin helps us feel empathy and togetherness. In short, teams that move through stressful scenarios together have a strong likelihood of forming bonds. A good example would be those old war buddies who remain connected for a lifetime.
As I reflect on opportunities that stem from our global shared experience, I hope this is part of the good that will rise from the ashes. I hope that we allow our minds to enter into this phase of shared experience. I hope that we find ourselves just a little more connected and having just a little bit more empathy.