PORTLAND — Amidst economic uncertainty, the University of Southern Maine must reinvent itself to meet its commitments.

As a cancer nurse, I learned something about managing uncertainty. It is timely to share what patients and their families taught me – skill in managing uncertainty helps one face an uncertain future with confidence.

Revising hopes/reframing expectations: A diagnosis of cancer has been called “an amputation of the future.” Suddenly, one’s plans disintegrate.

Patients learn that anticipating the future is a process of revising hopes and reframing expectations. Patients facing disability or death invent meaningful choices – even as abilities shrink, choices remain about attitudes and attention.

The recalibration occurs while hewing to their most important values. We at USM identified important values at our convocations, such as community, diversity and commitment, that will sustain us.

One day at a time: This is an adaptive response to a perceived amputation of the future.

Patients express this tentatively as taking things day-by-day. The art of living with paradox becomes second nature – one can have confidence in the future while recognizing just how fragile a construction our human notion of future is.

We must believe the sun will rise tomorrow, yet acknowledge that anything is possible.

As we live through restructuring, our challenge will be to manage the paradoxes change and uncertainty present.

Downward comparison: Patients look for a silver lining, a quest to uncover the positive in the direst situations: “At least I can. ” When our choices seem constricted or constrained, we may choose how to think or to what we will direct attention as we try to make a difference with our students and community.

Celebration: A foreshortened or reconfigured future leads patients to mark important occasions or invent new ones to celebrate. Celebration invites us to attend to what is most important even as things change irrevocably.

In the midst of change, we at USM must celebrate the accomplishments of our community, even as we grieve for what has changed.

Flexibility: Patients become more flexible as they manage frequent, unplanned changes. They learn that being angry or anxious adds to an already stressful experience.

Faculty themselves know the importance of flexibility when their students’ lives change abruptly. Flexibility and excellence are not mutually exclusive – restructuring requires honing our “flexibility muscles.”

Humor/creativity/exercise: It is easy to forget that distractions console, heal and reduce stress. One patient noticed that her chronic pain didn’t bother her when she was knitting; when she was not knitting, sitting became unbearable.

There are benefits of such strategies. During times of uncertainty, as individuals and as a community, we may need to “increase the dose” of positive experiences.

Get angry and get going: Anger is a common response to uncertainty. Patients learn that anger is useful up to a point.

When anger no longer serves, acknowledging it and then letting it go to “get going” frees up energy to work on other goals and commitments. Our students and communities are depending on us to find the wisdom to “get going” and tend to the business at hand.

Community: The distress of uncertainty can lead to isolation, commiseration or catastrophizing. Like anger, sharing the distress may be helpful in the short run. Often, what we really need when the world shifts in unexpected ways is to be listened to, have emotions validated and be held by our community.

In her book, “Here if You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup wrote that when a loved one dies, your life “swing(s) suddenly and cruelly in a new direction with breathtaking speed, and if you are really wise you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held.”

Many of the things we love about USM – teaching, collaboration, scholarly and creative work – will remain through restructuring. While an old way of being dies, we face a creative opportunity, even as we grieve the loss of the familiar.

Braestrup’s metaphor of a door swinging uncontrollably, with solace “on the hinge” resonates with my own experience. Can we take what we love about USM and these lessons in managing uncertainty to hold our community, manage paradoxes, and face an uncertain future with confidence?

The hinge is wide and sturdy – come join me.



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