What would you put in this empty jar?

The art of reflecting with the medical students gave me hope on Inauguration Day

To feel and see hope
When it’s just too difficult
To feel and see hope
When we are tired to see
We find hope in community!

—Mukta Panda

Our first regular time of rest and respite with the medical students in 2021 was scheduled for the afternoon of January 20th, Inauguration Day. This session is part of well-being curriculum (I call it the How to Live curriculum) developed to create a safe space for students to reflect and unpack their thoughts and emotions as they journey through their medical school. It offers an opportunity to give meaning and reconnect with their purpose in the medical profession. It is a time to recharge and recover, to build resilience in community. This is co-facilitated by me and my two colleagues and dear friends, Adera Causey, Curator of Education at the Hunter Museum of Arts Chattanooga and by Laurie Melnik Allen, the Lyndhurst Chair of Excellence and Executive Director, Arts Based Collaborative, UTC.

Given the significance of this Inauguration Day preceded by the recent events in our country, I reached out to Adera. I expressed my concern about whether we should take caution and postpone the session. As she assured me that all safety precautions were being taken and also affirmed my own belief that perhaps this group-reflection time would be the most needed time for us all. Selfishly, this felt a relief and reassurance; I needed this time too.

We gathered in our circle of trust, reaffirming and reconnecting with our shared touchstones that remind us of the sacredness of the space, of the invitation to be who we are, to show up with what we need in that time, to show up with the invitation to be held carefully and gently by each other in silence or if we so choose, with our voice to be respected, heard and spoken.

We sat in a circle facing a painting by Whitfield Lovell, Hope, 1999. As curator, Adera wrote this description: “Using old black and white photographs of anonymous sitters, Whitfield Lovell pays tribute to his African American ancestors. Lovell found a picture of the woman in this artwork at a flea market.”

As we looked at this beautiful painting, we invited the students to share aloud what they observed. Some students shared the delicacy of her face. Others called attention to the expression in her eyes voiced as hope, lost, confidence, conviction, sadness and purpose. Some commented on the beauty of her delicately embroidered shawl giving away perhaps a hint of affluence.

It did not escape our attention that here in the gallery, she was surrounded by more traditional portraits of white men and women, slave owners, clearly distinct in physical appearance and body language.

As “Hope” looked at us, she commanded a sense of respect that was spontaneous and authentic, a feeling of connection at the human level, one that tugged at my heart.

And then we turned our attention to the mason jars place on a wooden ledge in front of her.  The jars are filled with items that had symbolic meaning for the artist. There were coins from 1968, a piece of fabric from his great-grandmother’s suitcase; red soil from a graveyard where his ancestors are buried; hair from the artist and his relatives; dried flowers; and rock salt. The final jar stood closed however empty!

I found my mind wandering back to that period of time, to the picture of a family surrounded by love, to the artist collecting the items with a purpose, to the stories that surrounded each item. As Adera shared the items and mentioned the year 1968, we were reminded of the significant events in our country then. It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. I pictured the great-grandmother, perhaps the matriarch of the family leading her loved ones on a train for a new better life. What would she say today? What wisdom would she share?

I halted my inner journey and turned to share with the students our gentle invitation to reflect on these questions, however each felt called to do:

  • What would you put in the empty jar?

  • What is your hope for the new era, new season in your life, or the nation and world in this time of transition?

We all sat in silence, occupied with our thoughts (we all participate together). My mind kept oscillating between the 1960’s and 2020-2021.

I had had a busy day precepting in the outpatient setting. I knew that I was not going to be able to watch any of the inauguration events, although I had already heard Amanda Gorman’s interview on NPR and had read excerpts of her poem she was going to recite at the ceremony. As I reflected on what I would put in the jar, I wondered how the lady in the painting or the artist’s great-grandmother would respond to Amanda Gorman’s invitation—to be brave enough to see the light and be brave enough to be the light? How would they define being brave, what light would they refer to? What could I learn from them?

I could not decide on any one thing that I would put in the jar. I knew I did not want to close the jar. I knew I needed the past, present and hope for the future to be present. I kept coming back to these words: faith, courage, human dignity, human kindness. I reflected and scribbled these words around a sketch of a candle flame. Then I realized it was time to unpack our thoughts in our shared community circle.

The shared learning that emerged was beautiful, insightful, thought-provoking and provided strength, courage and hope. I paraphrase what my students would put in that empty jar:

  • A watch to remind that time is fleeting and all things come to the end. A reminder that life is best spent in the moment, not in the future or the past.

  • Peace and understanding in the jar.

  • Voting stickers with the hope that all those empowered to use their voices in one of the darkest times in their life would continue to do so and be heard.

  • The insecurities and inequality; preserving human decency, the American democracy and dream.

  • A book or a piece of wood representing stability and world peace.

  • Finally, someone said they would leave the jar empty, keeping it open for the future as a sign of faith in constant change and belief in progress.

As I listened in silence, I felt my heart fill up with such warmth and gratitude. I could feel a sense of belonging to this community of young students who have so much wisdom, courage, foresight and such hope to carry on what is right and what gives meaning.

I stared at the empty jar for a long time and imagined it filled with the different things shared. I felt smile on my face, warmth in my heart, and filled with hope.

I continue to carry the invitation to reflect as a ritual for myself and with my community of relationships as to what would I put in the empty jar. What do I need to do to make it happen?

#REFLECT: What would YOU put in the empty jar?


Online Retreat Coming in March

Reframing Resilience, Renewing Leadership: An Online Retreat for Weaving Joy and Meaning with Courage. Reclaim joy and meaning with courage, exploring in a Circle of Trust® how to weave your life’s threads into life and work as 2021 unfolds. A few spots are still open for the weekend option, March 5-6. You can also sign up for a four-week series on Thursday evenings that begins Thursday, March 18. Learn more and register here.


As we enter 2021, how will you tend to self-care, community and resilience? I will continue posting reflections on these themes and invite you to join in the conversation here or on Twitter or Instagram with your thoughts or what you are doing for self-care and care of others. My book explores such ideas too: Resilient Threads: Weaving Joy and Meaning into Well-Being.