Florence Nightingale possessed a compassionate heart and a reformer’s vision. Battling rigid societal and political preconceptions, Florence remained true to her vision even in the face of ridicule from her mother and sister. Against strenuous resistance from her family and stodgy Victorian society, Florence refused to accept defeat, one of the twelve obstacles to courage; instead, she demonstrated an important courage action skill: Manifest your vision.
Born in 1820 to an affluent family, Florence challenged her parents. By the time she turned ten, they knew that their beautiful and intelligent daughter would not be content with the type of trivial social activities that had defined her mother’s life. A devout Christian, Florence received a vision from God calling her to His service when she was twenty-four years old. Committed to manifesting her vision, she rebuffed the men who admired her to work in nursing. In the Victorian era, British society relegated nurses to the lower levels of society along with housekeepers and other domestic servants. Her mother spared no effort to defeat Florence by disapproving of her ambitions. Florence’s mother called her a “prostitute”[i] and her sister “joined her mother in condemning Florence as an ‘unnatural woman.’”[ii]
In Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, Phyllis Chesler writes, “We expect mothers to be good; they are all that stands between us and death in a cruel or indifferent world. So we are terrified and outraged when a mother is not only imperfect, but abusive… A good enough mother may routinely treat her daughter in ways that are acceptable yet horrendous. For example, a good enough mother may despise and envy women, including her own daughter.”[iii] Nonetheless, Florence Nightingale courageously chose to manifest her vision, follow her heart, reveal her potential and rise above her mother’s rebuke. Florence faced incredible odds, and manifesting her vision required hard work and a willingness to make sacrifices.
Do you have a vision—a calling that resonates with your heart and inspires your passion—not your egos stirred up passion? Or were you once inspired by a vision that now lies obscured by a sense of defeat? Everyone experiences defeat at some point in her life, and in spite of how society sets us up for defeat with its ludicrous images of “success,” we can overcome this obstacle simply by working to manifest that which inspires us—our personal vision—and it is different for each of us. Buying into someone else image of success sets us up for defeat, like studying to become a doctor because that is what your parents always wanted.
Society provides an abundance of false images of success. Hyper-individualized multi-tasking, working eighty-hour weeks, keeping up with a “material world” (“more is better”) and keeping yourself constantly connected to your work through your smartphone are just a few of society’s success deceptions. As my yoga teacher said, “’Busy’ has become a status symbol.” To embrace your heart’s true desire and manifest your vision, are you willing to sacrifice your attachment to an idea of success based on society’s ploys? What superficial roles are you attached to? How often do you hit the pause button?
Sacrifice comes from the Latin root sacer facere, to make sacred … “to rise up vertically in a single act from the profane world of greed and fear, up into the serene, still dimension of the sacred, and to transfigure one’s whole life in one moment.”[iv] Sacrifice does not mean giving up your “heart and spirit” identity or enslaving yourself to a self-destructive “work ethic.” Real sacrifice is about giving up the delusions and false pretenses that keep us imprisoned in defeat so that we can recognize and manifest our true vision. Our culture has created a rat race fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, and knowingly or not, you most likely serve this culture of insanity.
Reviewing where you focus your energy will help you redefine your purpose and manifest your own vision, which recognizes success in your everyday life. In “Shattered Vision,” Thomas Keating asks us to look at how we create defeat by becoming too attached to the external world, “How does one push on? Is it by giving up the vision? Not exactly. Rather, it is by being willing to do so. For that renunciation is the only way to move beyond what one thinks is the vision and embrace what really is the vision. In other words, you must transcend all your own ideas of how to reach the place of vision in order to get there.”[v] Keating suggests that what you push for may require sacrifice, misunderstanding or even vilification. You must have the courage to say, “I know the truth, so I can live with this. I will never lose courage.”
Even during times of hesitation, you will feel more secure and less alone because you are working to manifest your vision—not your mother’s vision, not your employer’s vision and certainly not society’s vision. Do you know, or have you witnessed, anyone who, in his or her pursuit of career advancement, demonstrated selflessness to achieve fulfillment? Re-read the definition of sacrifice and take a moment to reflect.
Wield a Shield
While today’s society may afford women more latitude than Victorian society, gender issues continue to affect women. If a girl displays talents that lie outside the acceptable feminine norms, a woman, mother, sister or other “role model” may try to suffocate these talents. Envy and control feed much of the chastisement. As Phyllis Chesler observes, envy is “what makes competition with women so much more acute and painful than competition with men… Being envied means that one is under attack and rendered helpless by it.”[vi] Wielding a shield of insincerity and hypocrisy, far too many women (mothers included) lay traps for those who express individuality.
Florence Nightingale chose to follow her passion and departed London in June 1851 to study nursing at the first Protestant hospital in Kaiserswerth, Germany. She had taken the first concrete steps to manifest her vision, a vision that led to radical humanitarian changes in hospitals and nursing care. As with any ambitious vision, the reality of organizing an appropriate hospital proved to be more complex than the anticipation. With vision comes sacrifice. With sacrifice comes personal change. With personal change come stumbles, suffering and, ultimately, gratitude for the light of spiritual splendor. What about you? Are you jammed in a vortex of complexities that leave you feeling defeated? Are you afraid of the sacrifices needed to bring your vision into fulfillment?
In October 1854, Florence was asked to head a group of thirty-eight nurses bound for the Crimean front near Constantinople. Florence and her nurses discovered shockingly filthy conditions at the Turkish hospital, which swarmed with fleas and rats. Even against such staggering odds, Florence was unwilling to succumb to defeat. Florence’s vision enabled her to step up to the challenge. She provided care for twenty hours at a stretch and carried a lamp so that she could continue making her rounds after dark. Known amongst the soldiers as “The Lady with the Lamp,” Florence achieved astounding results and drastically improved the quality of life for thousands of soldiers. “Nightingale once said: ‘I think that feelings waste themselves in words; they ought to be distilled into actions, and into actions which bring results.’”[vii] Claiming the courage to manifest your vision will lift you out of defeat, empowering you, like Florence, to take the steps necessary to achieve results.
Vision without action is merely a dream.
Action without vision just passes the time.
Vision with action can change the world.[viii]
After the Crimean War ended in March 1856, Florence Nightingale, Superintendent of Nursing, became “one of history’s most famous invalids, following a collapse at the age of thirty-seven which left her bedridden for more than ten years.”[ix] Some researchers say that, after the war, depression set in when she and the medical staff learned too late that neglected sanitary conditions and poor hygiene caused over 16,000 British soldiers’ deaths. Other writers speculate that she made a promise that involved an official cover-up with Queen Victoria and leading politicians, a choice that blemished her spirit’s integrity. Still others have written that, after watching so many soldiers die in the war, she was reluctant to celebrate. It is still unclear whether Florence believed that the soldiers died because of poor hygiene or because of politics, but these incongruities have spawned numerous attempts to defeat Florence’s courageous legacy.
Did Florence inflict defeat upon herself by over-intellectualizing these issues, and if so, did her suffering shift the direction of her life to spiritual surrender and mysticism? Did she surrender her personal vision in order to model the vision God had for her? Florence’s illness led to new insights and about fifty years of contemplative life, time that she spent mostly at home on her couch. Surrounded by notes, documents and cats, she wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army. This thousand-page report details Florence’s painstaking observations of wounded, sick and dying patients. In 1860, The Nightingale Training School for Nurses opened at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London to train the first eleven nurses, called “Nightingales.” In 1907, Florence was the first woman awarded, at eighty-seven, the “Order of Merit” by King Edward VII of England.
Florence Nightingale paid a price to manifest her vision and sustain her passion, a price that included setbacks, upsets, bouts of loneliness and missteps. Yet, her professional identity as a visionary and a healer merged with spiritual insight. Florence, like St. Teresa of Avila, concentrated on a vision for social action, utilized passion and developed the contemplative discipline of a mystic. They understood the dictum: “Be passionate only for God.”[x] By living in the present moment, we recognize that contemplative stillness and action are actually congruent.
A balance between feminine courage and contemplative discipline gave Florence’s life meaning and allowed her to underscore those areas in which she could achieve tangible progress. Most people will say that when they are in step with their passion, they feel joie de vivre—an unlimited energy that flows from the heart and spirit. This energy empowers everyday people to obliterate defeat and achieve amazing results.
[i] Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 276.
[ii] Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 299.
[iii] Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 239.
[iv] Ferrucci, Piero, Inevitable Grace: Breakthroughs in the Lives of Great Men and Women: Guides to Your Self-Realization (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990), 313.
[v] Keating, Thomas, “Shattered Vision,” Contemplative Outreach News, Volume 16, Number 2 Fall/Winter 2002-2003, 1.
[vi] Chesler, Phyllis, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001), 299 and 301.
[vii] Ferrucci, Piero, Inevitable Grace: Breakthroughs in the Lives of Great Men and Women: Guides to Your Self-Realization (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990), 74.
[ix] Small, Hugh, Florence Nightingale Avenging Angel (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), front flap.
Comments are closed.