I was chatting to a friend recently who, after two pints of beer and a long night with a teething baby, was describing himself as a “sap”. He had spent the morning folding up cardboard and cleaning out tiny jars for the recycling and, as he was doing it, he was thinking about the giant air conditioning machines in Las Vegas.
“It’s a desert,” he observed. “A desert that requires hundreds and hundreds of air conditioners the size of a chuffing battleship just to keep it cool enough to play slot machines and drink cheap piña coladas. The environment gets shredded and there’s me sitting at home cleaning my tiny jars so I can save the planet?”
He described it as one of those moments where we stare at life and find a reflection staring back of a man cleaning jars for recycling day. Above him is an aeroplane flying past trailing a banner behind it that spells out the word “sap”.
“God is in the small things,” I suggested half-heartedly.
The following day I had coffee with a couple of nurses who’d had a challenging week. They were in that place that nurses go sometimes, the place between exhaustion and bewilderment. Driven there by the bizarre and unceasing nature of a working day full of people who are varyingly needy, pained, angry, confused, afraid, hungry, misplaced or unreachable.
“I spent 40 minutes trying to orientate someone today,” said one of them, “only to be told we were moving her to another ward because we needed a bed.”
“We were a staff member down,” said the other. “I spent the day running to keep up. Sometimes it feels like it’s all completely pointless but at the same time vital.”
Like polishing a tiny jar in order to save the planet.
Nursing sustains itself no matter what. Against a backdrop of political interference, change and cuts, nurses just carry on nursing, carry on trying to make a difference. Doing the right thing in the face of what can, after a few hard days and too much caffeine, feel like insurmountable odds.
And it is the “trying to make a difference” that resonates the most. The big picture paints itself most of the time, coloured by politicians desperate for power. Or the ever nebulus “economy”’ desperate for money. Yet the best of us - and by “us” I mean humanity - is not visible in the big picture. The small things that fill a good nurse’s day - the attention to the needs of others, the capacity to do the right thing by your patient or, indeed, whoever is in front of you - these things are increasingly lost.
I can’t help but fear for the morale of nurses if the importance of what they do goes unseen or unvalued. And, if that role is undervalued, I fear for the vital role that nursing plays in showing society how civilized we can be.
We can of course only take responsibility for our own day and our own standards, and that is what thousands of nurses do every day. But I can’t help wondering more generally when I listen to a tired but brilliant nurse talk about their day: if God is in the small things, what if it’s because he’s stuck?