When to Stick Your Neck Out

Lessons in Living from Turtles

“My favorite animal is the turtle. The reason is that in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out. There are going to be times in your life when you're going to have to stick your neck out. There will be challenges and instead of hiding in a shell, you have to go out and meet them.” —Ruth Westheimer

I have always been fascinated by stories and turtles. I grew up reading stories about the Indian mythology and culture (Amar Chitra Katha books) and others like the Aesop fables. One of my favorite stories is about the Kurma Avatar (Sanskrit: “Tortoise”) one of the ten avatars (incarnations) of the God Vishnu. In this incarnation Lord Vishnu is associated with the myth of the churning of the ocean to obtain amrita, the elixir of immortality to overcome evil. Lord Vishnu incarnates himself as a turtle to provide the firm foundation needed to steady the mountain needed for the churning.

Amongst the Aesop fables, I really like The Hare and The Tortoise. The moral of the story: slow but steady wins the race. Rather than reacting quickly, carelessly and arrogantly, one can be successful and achieve purpose by doing things with presence and focus. (A bit of trivia, all tortoises are in fact turtles—that is, they belong to the order Testudines or Chelonia, reptiles having bodies encased in a bony shell—but not all turtles are tortoises.)

Turtles are known for their ability to stay grounded and pace themselves, for their determination, persistence, emotional strength and understanding. They are also known for their wisdom.

These are the same qualities attributed with mitigating fatigue, stress and burnout, promoting resilience, giving meaning, living with purpose and joy. How easy it is to forget this when we get caught in the busyness each day and feel a perpetual sense of time poverty! We need to know when to stick out our neck, or take a pause for the sake of our body and soul.

We also need the wisdom and slow but steady pace of the tortoise when it comes to changing the systems and culture of medicine. Resilience cannot lead to professionalism or thriving in medicine without leaders who bring about systems change (which this article so aptly describes). “… Clare Gerada in the BMJ rightly regrets that “structures within medicine where doctors can come together to train, work, play, and reflect together have been reduced or removed completely…The lack of those informal spaces threatens our ability to build the resilience we need to work.”

About ten years ago some of my residents were selected to go to Hawaii to present their novel research. I was very proud and supported their efforts. When they came back the students brought me a gift of a handmade turtle. They had no idea I loved turtles.

I received the turtle gift around the time I was considering where I belonged in my personal life and professional life. I felt I had been retreating and hiding myself for so long. I would take off and put on different hats depending on who I was with—my children, my parents, my students, my colleagues, The Multiple Hat Syndrome! Who was I at that point? The shell protects the shy inner self, just as the hat shades the eyes from harsh sunlight or signals to others what they can expect of us. But if we hide our whole self forever inside the shell, or live a life where we do not honor the many roles we play as humans, we cannot experience wholeness. When we avoid integrating the many roles in our lives, it’s like wearing too many weighty hats until they obscure our vision and damage our health. Do we burst and shatter from unbearable pain, the weight or collapse into our own version of a black hole? Unlike the turtle, our shell can go from being protective to destructive!

The turtle actually carries its home with it on its back. As I think of that more, it reminds me that they are self-aware, they are always “home”, at one with their inner self, something we spend years practicing through meditation or Rajya Yoga.

It’s as if turtles don’t need the outside world to define who they are or how they show up. They take time to understand their environment, to discern when to stick their neck out and when to peacefully go about on their own journey with determination and a focused purpose.

Holding the wooden turtle in my hand often, I pledged to start with taking time to build rest, relaxation and rejuvenation at work for myself and my community, we started the RRRR sessions (Relaxing, Rejuvenation and Rejoicing in Residency). It was one step toward a culture of more authentic well-being.

In 2017, I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Japan and the Narita-san Shinshō-ji Temple. As I descended the stairs from the temple by the pond, on this rock was a bale of turtles. I just stood and stared for a long time. They seem so content and peaceful, not one of them moved, as if in deep meditation. Another much needed reminder from these wise beings!

As I stood and stared, I wondered: How often do I take time to stop even for a few minutes in the day to simply take in whatever is there before me? How often to I truly connect with my body, my spirit?

This past weekend, while out with my dear friend and walking buddy, we saw this wonderful sight: turtles making ripples in the muddy water, what absolute joy!

Another reminder: When I do take time to be present, how does that change my perspective and allow for spaciousness?

#REFLECT: How do you know when to slow down and be present? When are you ready to stick your neck out?

How is the coronavirus and civil unrest around racism changing the way you think of self-care, community and resilience? As this challenging time unfolds, I am posting a quote on this blog with a reflection prompt. Please 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.