Christie Watson (b. 1976) was a nurse in the British health care system for two decades. She began in 1994 as a nursing student in the mental health clinics and then rotated into emergency care and midwifery.
The Language of Kindness is an account of her time, certainly. It also concerns things beyond words, relationships outside of language, gestures of action, engagement, and caring.1
Most days I feel overwhelmed, and some days completely out of my depth. On other days I feel disgusted, and occasionally simply bored and tired. […] Nursing people means doing for them what they would normally do when they have no will to do it, until they have will to do it.
Watson didn’t enter the nursing profession to be kind, not particularly, but the first time she watched nurses in full swing, she knew something extraordinarily grand was needed.
It was the first time I’d been around nurses. I watched the qualified nurses with the kind of intensity that a child watches her parents when she’s sick. My eyes didn’t leave them. I had no language for what they were doing, or for their job.
“Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness,” wrote Mary Oliver. We draw kindness from wells of generosity and replenish as we can, with friends, nature, rest, self-care.
But some exceptional individuals give and give and never seem to outstep their empathy. For most of us who struggle to be kind at all, to make a profession out of it seems superhuman.
Nursing is a career that demands a chunk of your soul on a daily basis. The emotional energy needed to care for people at their most vulnerable is not limitless and there have been many days when, like most nurses, I have felt spent, devoid of any further capacity to give.
From Watson’s beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking narrative in The Language of Kindness, there are two glittering insights.
First, this intensely felt life is bearable because it’s not done in isolation. Psychologist Irvin Yalom argued that human connectedness alleviates death anxiety. It reminds me of poet John Keats, who spent the last few years of his incredibly short life dying from tuberculous and was never without the company of others.2
For Watson, too, connectivity delivers fortitude.
There is a beauty in A&E, too: a togetherness, where all conflict is forgotten. There is no sleepwalking through the day, as an A&E nurse. Every day is intensely felt and examined and truly lived.
The second theme of The Language of Kindness is that each of us, more than we realize, has vast stores of kindness. It is something we simply have to mobilize and practice.3
What I thought nursing involved when I started: chemistry, biology, physics, pharmacology, and anatomy. What I now know to be the truth of nursing: philosophy, psychology, art, ethics, and politics. We will meet people on the way: patients, relatives, and staff—people you may recognize already. Because we are all nursed at some point in our lives. We are all nurses.
When he was injured in World War II, Roald Dahl spent a few weeks convalescing at the field hospital and formed a sentimental attachment to his nurse, and – perhaps humorously – to her uniform:
When may days of blackness and doubt are pierced suddenly by shining images of read and gold, the pleasure that floods into your mind is overwhelming. I lay propped up on my pillows gazing through the tiny crack in one eye at these amazing sights and wondering, whether I wasn’t perhaps catching a glimpse of paradise.
‘What am I looking at?’ I asked her.
‘You are looking at a bit of my white uniform.’
From Roald Dahl’s Going Solo
For more thoughts on kindness and how to summon it, read novelist George Saunders’ Congratulations, By the Way, a simple sermon on our human legacy of kindness, or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which argues we were “born for cooperation.”
“We have all nursed at some point in our lives,” reminds Watson, “We are all nurses.” Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid illustrates the importance of such tenderness:
Often in autumn – what season’s more fine? –
when grapes are full and blush with purple wine,
when cold descends, and heat dissolvers the chill –
in this uncertain climate, we get ill.
All health to her, but if she takes to bed –
if the unreliable sky goes to her head –
then let your love and your devotion show:
what you plant now, your sickle soon will mow.
Don’t be disgusted by her foul disease,
but be the one who brings her remedies;
kisses won’t tire her; let her see you cry –
let lips absorb your tears when they are dry.
From Ovid’s The Art of Love
What touched me most about The Language of Kindness was Watson’s ability to exist beyond words, beyond understanding, and still act, still care. Read more on what Daniel Goleman termed “emotional intelligence” or on complex emotions that render us speechless.
When words are not enough, we invent new techniques to connect and understand.4
For Watson, this language is kindness.