President’s Column: A Portal to the New

Jan 18, 2018

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I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for 2018 to begin. There were lots of good things to celebrate in 2017, but, frankly, a dizzying array of troubling and tragic events left many of us with a profound sense of loss and disturbance.

Close to my home, the beautiful Columbia River Gorge had a raging forest fire, leaving nearly 50,000 acres of historic and natural wonder in a smoldering mess, damaged beyond recognition.

I doubt that it was coincidence, then, when I found solace and inspiration from the keynote speaker at the Greater Portland Chapter fall symposium. Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecology professor at the University of Utah, shared her incredible story as a critically injured trauma patient after a 50-foot fall from an old-growth tree in Olympic National Park.

She compared her experience to that of a solitary, relict tree that remains standing after removal of the surrounding forest for lumber and agriculture. She used key principles of forest recovery to guide her own rehabilitation and eventual return to a very active life and career. She eloquently referenced the strong sense of purpose shown by the nurses who cared for her during her long journey back to health. Throughout her presentation, she shared thought-provoking insights about the role of disturbance in our world. In 2014, she convened a “Disturbance Colloquium” study group composed of University of Utah faculty. This diverse group of experts came from seemingly unrelated fields — forestry, neuroscience, burn care, traffic planning, urban development, refugee studies and modern dance — and their purpose was to explore and understand the dynamics of disturbed systems. They would then use the resulting conclusions to help different disciplines guide recovery after catastrophe or unexpected change.

Many observations resulted from their discussions over several months. But the one that resonated with me most was this: While disturbance can be unwelcome, devastating, messy and sometimes even life-threatening, it is always a “portal to the new.” The new state that results from disturbance may or may not be better, but it will certainly be different.

Examples are all around us: Exposure following a forest fire provides the light and composting nutrients allowing new seedlings to thrive; relocation of refugees from countries in turmoil presents opportunities for learning and education that were inconceivable in their native lands; boredom with traditional classical art gives way to fusion jazz, impressionist art and modern dance. This is especially true for patients and families who, following recovery from illness and injury, are forever different because of the experience and the shifting of relationships along the way.

Nadkarni’s message left me with a new way of thinking about disturbance. While we can’t begin to explain or reconcile the tragic events of 2017, we can look at the new state with a sense of curiosity and possibility for moving forward.

Perhaps we should put the perennial New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, exercise regularly and get back in shape on the back burner this year. In their place, let’s make our 2018 resolution to let messiness and disturbance reinforce our WHYs and to boldly cross that portal to the new, so that we all take part in creating something different and impactful regardless of the circumstances.

Please share with me how WHY has guided you through messiness and disturbance at, and have a very Happy New Year!