Notes from the Wayside – June 2023

Wayside shrine at the hospital church of St. John the Baptist in Iphofen, Germany
June 14, 2023

My husband Matthew, a hospital nurse within a major health system, will be going on strike next week along with the nurse’s union. A contract was meant to be agreed upon by the nurses and upper management in December of 2022; however, after months and months of negotiations, no agreement could be reached, and the nurse’s union ultimately voted to strike.

Now, obviously my husband and I have a vested interest in the outcome of this strike. A new contract promising increased wages and enhanced benefits would be a significant boon for our family, and better working conditions (such as reduced nurse-to-patient ratios and consistent break coverage) would support nurses and also improve hospital safety and patient care.

But while Matthew supports the union’s decision to strike, and believes the changes it calls for are fair and necessary, he has been crestfallen to witness how months of deadlock and hostility between the nurses and management have devastated his once-amicable work environment. Matty (as I affectionately call him) has always been proud to work for an organization with a strong Catholic heritage, and he felt that the hospital’s Christ-centered mission statement and core values supported a working culture of unity, goodwill, trust, and mutual respect. But lately, this peaceable atmosphere has eroded under the pressure of the negotiations, as enmity and resentment have led to the corrosion of relationships within the hospital. Instead of cooperating together as one for optimal patient care, the feeling is that there are now two “sides” operating within the hospital: the nurses against the management.

As the wife of a nurse, I have been privy to many of the insider goings-on at the hospital, whether it’s listening in to union meetings on Zoom, reading e-mails from upper management, or hearing direct reports from Matty on the latest updates. And as things get more heated, both the union as well as the management have resorted to using more intimidation, stronger language, and bigger threats. Which causes me to wonder if, for both camps, what’s right, or reasonable, or fair in these negotiations isn’t even really the point anymore; perhaps it’s just become about winning.

I don’t know what it is in human nature that causes us to be so childishly invested in being “winners”. We always want be the victor, prevail, and triumph, even if we’re not really all that sure what we’re fighting for, or if we’re actually right. In fact, some of us may continue to argue our point even when we know flat-out that we’re in the wrong, as we see instructed in this excerpt from the WikiHow article: “How to Win an Argument When You Know You Are Wrong”:

It feels great to make your case and win an argument. However, at times it can be fairly difficult to win, especially if you know that you're wrong or your opponent is well-spoken and intelligent. Luckily, there are tactics and strategies that you can use to prove a point and be victorious. By discrediting your opponent and defending your false narrative, you can feel as if you've won even when you know you're wrong.

This article is not satirical, it’s real, evidencing how desperate we are to always win. The compulsion to win “no matter what” influences disagreements between individuals, such as spouses and friends, (even with my own children, I admit there are times when I realize I’ve been unfair or come down too hard on them, but don’t want to concede because of my own immature urge to “win”); between organizations or groups, such as what is happening at the hospital; or even between countries, when the desire to win causes leaders to engage in wars that are fought for reasons no one understands.  We are so driven by winning that we will sacrifice relationships, friendships, even ignore our own sense of right and wrong to assure that we come out on top.

And yet Jesus has told us that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16), flipping the script on what it actually means to be “the winner”. Indeed, during his time on Earth Jesus refused to “win” in any of the conventional ways that would have made sense to us: by conquering Rome, by affirming Jewish supremacy over the Gentiles, by calling down an army to rescue him from persecution. No, instead, he won by losing; by giving up his life willingly, he chose to let Rome and the Pharisees “win”, paradoxically assuring his own dominion over sin and death.  

This makes no sense to us who are determined to win, who are addicted to the feeling of power we get from winning. But winning, in the sense we understand it, was never one of Jesus’ priorities. Loving was his aim, a love that doesn’t separate people into groups of winners and losers but unites all of humanity into one human family under God.

So, sadly, it seems to me that no matter what happens after the nurse’s strike next week, however the contract dispute is resolved and whomever it favors, no one will have won. Because something more precious than money has been surrendered at the hospital when trust, camaraderie, and respect have been lost. And only love, through the hard work of friendship, can win it back.

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