“You’re not going to stick me with needles, are you? I hate needles!”
I looked at the young woman sitting next to me, covered in tattoos, and pointed to the rather prominent ring hanging from the septum of her nose. “What about that?” I asked.
“That’s different,” she said, marinating my nose in whaffs of alcoholic fumes.
It was 5 am, New Year’s Day at intake in the county jail. I was doing the medical screening on new inmates. Most were drunk. This thin young lady was a "Marchman," meaning the officers brought her in to sleep it off. Once she was awake and sober, she would be released without an arrest on her record, rather like Otis in “Andy of Mayberry.” But I had asked enough questions to know she would be back. Big tip off: she said at one point, “I’m an alcoholic.” She was barely in her 20s. Sad way to start the new year.
As a nurse, I’ve worked neurosurgery, psych, med/surg, rehab, chronic care, home health, private duty, correctional medicine, geriatrics, and pediatrics. As a priest, I’ve baptized, married and buried people. I’ve seen human beings at every point in life, including the end. But while there’s just one end to this life, there are multiple beginnings. Which is a good topic for the new year.
The most obvious beginning is birth, though it’s not actually the beginning. It’s at conception that genetic material from 2 individuals combine. Even those 2 are recipients of DNA from their ancestors. The result is a unique individual, although how much of who she or he is comes from inheritance and how much comes from experience is a matter of debate.
But there are other beginnings: when you first walk, when you first talk, when you go to school, when you first fall in love, when you make a decision about God, when you start your career, when you marry, when you become a parent.
Endings also beget beginnings. The end of high school or college is usually seen as the beginning of one’s life as an adult. The end of one’s single life is the beginning of one’s life as part of a married couple. Or when one ends one career and starts a new one. In these endings, what begins could be seen as a progression in life.
Then there are those changes in which there is a disconnect between what ends and what starts. Such as when one ends a life of crime and goes straight. Or when one ends an active addiction and starts a life as a recovering addict. Or when one ends a life lived for one’s self, and starts a life following Jesus. In such cases, what’s new is the direction of one’s life.
Are there general principles for a beginning? I think there are. And I’ll be drawing at least some of them from my observations of my everyday patient, an infant. For him, just about everything is brand-new.
I wasn’t at the birth of my patient. But I have been at others, most importantly my children’s. And from the standpoint of the newborn, the first step is getting acclimated. A new beginning means a new environment. Actor Stephen Tobolowsky remembers when his son was born. He looked like an angry thousand-year old man. He realized the baby was having trouble with the brightness of the delivery room. He shielded his firstborn’s eyes with his hand and swore he read a “thank you” in his son’s expression.
A new beginning takes us into new territory. And that takes adjusting. You need to get the lay of the land--new people, new powers, new principles at work. Babies have to adjust to the light, the noise, the cold of the world outside the womb. New employees have to adjust to new priorities, new procedures, new responsibilities. New parents have to adjust to the same sort of things. So getting oriented is one of the first things you have to do when beginning.
Next you need a source of energy. You know how when you start a new job or a new school, you’re exhausted at the end of each day. Even if all you did was read manuals, watch videos, take notes and fill out forms, you feel as if you’d been digging ditches or running a race. And while the temptation is to just chow down on junk food, full of calories and little else, you need proper nourishment, full of good stuff.
You also need rest, time to recover and recoup. That’s why babies sleep a lot. In fact, one of the best theories of why sleep is necessary is that our brains are reviewing, prioritizing and storing what we’ve experienced. Which may, by the way, explain dreams. We know that memories are not stored whole but broken down and stored in bits: smells here, sounds there, visions elsewhere. They are recombined when we remember. Dreams may be the surreal experience having one’s life disassembled before one’s eyes: sometimes disturbing but sometimes instructive, as we see combinations and juxtapositions we might not have come to logically.
Next you need to inventory your assets. You need to assess your strengths, your talents, your equipment. I watched my patient as he stared at his own hand. You could see him taking it in, wondering what it was. And eventually, he started seeing what it could do. Through trial and error, he is working out how to do grab things better. The same with sitting up. He can now do so for several minutes without toppling. At first, he was twitching and shifting, trying to adjust his body so he would stay upright. Now he sits like a rock. At first, when he achieved balance, he was almost paralyzed. If he dropped a toy, he would look at it and whimper. Reaching for it would throw him off balance. Now he is working out how to put his weight on one hand while reaching with the other. He hasn’t gone so far as to crawl for something out of his reach but we expect that soon. I am no longer retrieving and returning dropped toys. “Go and get it,” I tell him. “You can do it.”
That’s something you also need: drive, a motive to go forward. It isn’t a beginning if you don’t move. You need to plunge ahead. Find out what it is you’re after and go for it. I remember hearing the story of a gang member who went straight. What motivated him was the birth of his child. It made him reevaluate his life. He didn’t want her to have the same kind of childhood he did. He wanted her to have what he didn’t: a father. That’s what made him take the dangerous but necessary step of getting out of the gang, out of the life and beginning a new life, with new goals and a new way of achieving them.
There are new things to learn, of course. And things to unlearn. One of the hardest things for me to learn working at the jail is that, unlike a hospital, I can refuse to accept someone if they need major medical attention first. We can do detox; we can treat for TB and Hep B and C and HIV; we can maintain people on medication; but we don’t do surgery or deliver babies. And I had to learn that, as a correctional nurse, I could give a patient Tylenol or a laxative or start him on antibiotics when he needs it, before waiting to get the doctor’s order. There are guidelines but they recognize that in jail, preventing infection and pain in clear cut cases is a high priority. New beginnings mean new things to learn and old things to unlearn.
Finally, when you begin a new phase of life, you need a mentor. Babies need parents. Students need teachers. New employees need someone to show them the ropes. Recovering addicts need someone to help them start over. Beginnings can be bewildering. It really helps to have someone tell you the rules, give you tips, show you around. Because of his rough start and handicap, my patient has a physical therapist. She is helping him catch up with the developmental milestones he missed being in the hospital so many months. Things like lifting his head, learning to grasp intentionally, crawling--the stuff that he should have achieved earlier--she is helping him with. She can’t do it for him. She can’t tell him how to do it. So she shows and nudges and challenges him. And he is catching up.
It’s a nice and symbolic, but you don’t need a new year to start something new. You do need the other things, though. You need to adapt to the new environment, learn what it is and how it works. And as scary as that can be, never forget that there are certain things that always apply in this world. No matter where you are, there is always a true north, there is always an up and a down, and there is always right and wrong. And you can never be somewhere that God can’t find you.
You need nourishment, and not just physically. Whatever your new endeavor, you need to feed your spirit. New situations can be overwhelming. They can be a real drain. You need the spiritual food found in Jesus. We need the daily bread that he offers, the living water that only he can provide. We need to, as we say at the Eucharist, “feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” When starting something new, don’t skip meals and don’t try to live by bread alone.
You need rest. God gives us the sabbath because he knows we require it. We need to break from the routines of life. And yet we humans have engineered a 24/7 world. The commandment to remember the sabbath and keep it holy is probably the one most heedlessly violated. Most people don’t even see it as important. But the soul-killing pace of the world is beginning to take a toll. Stress makes us sick, mentally and physically. Jesus said the sabbath was made for humans. Let us observe it.
Take an inventory of your assets. Or in Bible-speak, count your blessings. God gives us gifts. He didn’t lavish them on us so we could abuse or misuse them. But neither does he want us to neglect them. Before going on an expedition, experienced explorers check their equipment to find out what they have and if it is in working condition. A periodic personal inventory, that includes one’s spiritual resources, is vital.
You need a motive to move ahead. It can be self-improvement, curiosity, love or necessity. Make sure it is not fear or rage or greed or arrogance. Not all motives are good, even if they do drive people towards noble goals. Make sure what drives you is holy, set apart for God’s use. When you do your personal inventory, it’s good to check on your motivation. Why are you doing what you do and how does that affect how you do it?
Don’t forget as you learn new things, you may have to unlearn others. Make sure you know which is which. When my patient learns to walk some of the skills he learned when crawling will still apply, like maintaining a dynamic balance. But some things that may once have been useful will be left behind. A lot of the problems that keep people returning to jail are the result of not unlearning bad habits and old ways of thinking. One man in intake had never been in jail before. He overindulged on New Year’s Eve. I hope he’s learned never to do that again. And if there’s a deeper reason for his drinking, I hope he learns to get help. There are lots of support groups that help those who let them and that teach principles for living a good life.
Finally, you need a mentor, be it parent, teacher, or helper. God is all three. Human mentors are valuable but always put God and his principles first. Never let yourself be talked into cutting corners, or cheating or taking advantage of others, even if it seems to be part of the culture. Of course, if you can, find a mentor who is honest and moral. Or become one. God knows the world needs mentors who are good in every sense of the word.
Sometimes we get in a rut and life seems stale. We are just doing the same thing over and over. At such times, certain people seek out the new. New can be good, like a new life or a new way of helping people. But new can be bad, like the new kind of mortgage investing Wall Street engineered. But you know what’s always new and different? Following Jesus, making a concerted effort to really live like him and according to his principles. Few people try it and even fewer keep at it. But it’s seldom boring. Of course, we’ll never know unless we begin.