Just after beginning summer vacation this July, I shared a story with my spouse I had not thought of in years. In high school, I was proud of serving as the Features section editor of the school newspaper—perhaps a foreshadowing of my present role—finding joy and laughter in the silly shenanigans of that age among journalistically inclined friends and classmates. One year, the school newspaper participated in a national high school journalism competition: we submitted our best issue over the past academic calendar year for judging and possible award recognition and several students on our newspaper staff also entered various writing competitions. I entered the writing competition that aligned with my section. The competition involved watching a short film and then having a predetermined amount of time to write a film review. I took home a pleasantly unexpected “Honorable Mention” from that competition, considering I had struggled with the handwritten submission format, time constraint, and first-timer performance anxiety.
Years later, I look back at that relatively distant memory and realize that this September theme issue on “Physician and Patient Well-being and Mental Health” marks one year since I began serving our Society of General Internal Medicine as Editor in Chief for SGIM Forum. It is catastrophically inadequate to say the past year has surfaced personal and societal issues that have been trying and even traumatizing for physicians, front-line workers in healthcare and other industries, and patient populations everywhere. There is no doubt that overall mental health and well-being during the still ongoing pandemic have been seriously and negatively impacted. Yet, the tremendous opportunities for surfacing the best in people as they cope with and respond to the breadth of challenges presented are often inspirational, offering lessons behind every story to learn about the optimism, resilience, and connectedness of human nature.
In some cases, coping can be productive, turning distress into eustress. Recognizing the inadequacy of measures and protective gear for frontline health workers stimulated multiple organizational efforts, by established associations and brand-new groups, to acquire and distribute the necessary supplies. Seeing the plight of doctors facing COVID-19 surges and recurrent secondary or even primary traumas, from COVID-19 and from deferred care for non-COVID-19 illnesses, led to the establishment of confidential support phone lines by community physicians and resources in support of clinician emotional as well as physical well-being. Within and beyond our medical communities, avalanches of advocacy and social justice movements have fuelled calls for change on some of the most pressing issues of our contemporary times. In these cases, distress is channelled into collective strategic and motivated change.
However, there are other cases when sometimes being productive means doing nothing. After the seemingly endless drive to be prepared for and enact plans to respond to worst case scenarios and individual tragedies with their widespread ripple effects, there is subsequently a need for pause. Yes, this partially means always holding space for oneself and for others, whether peers and professionals, patients, or even strangers.1 But, I would suggest that this also means making mental space to refresh and come back to problems with renewed energy and insight. One way to accomplish this is via the “art of doing nothing.”2 In the Dutch language, niksen is a verb that translates into “to do nothing.” In short, by doing nothing, you are actually doing something: you release your mind and attention to freely wander, which can be emotionally and mentally liberating. This could mean listening to music, reading a book, or simply daydreaming—as long as it has no specific purpose to the activity. Doing nothing can permit creativity and innovation to flourish, untethered by the traditional reins that might keep driving us towards production and professional achievement.
After setting aside work responsibilities as I began my summer break, my mind wandered to a nostalgic and joyful memory that I shared with a loved one. The shared memory keenly reminded me of why I enjoy serving SGIM Forum on this one-year anniversary. May your reading of this theme issue’s featured articles bring you closer to the recognition that “doing nothing” actually helps you to do something for yourself and then, in turn, for others in your various roles. Only when we unburden our minds and hearts of the cumulative responsibilities that we carry, can we untether and free our minds for the compassion, love, and acceptance of our present and our future.