Joseph Cramer, M.D.: 'You can't push a rope'

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 5:17 p.m. MDT

Ropes are for pulling, not pushing. Without pulleys that can change direction, to pull obligates a person to be in front. We pull people toward us. We can’t push them.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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My former business partner, Dr. Bill Cosgrove, likes to say, “You can’t push a rope.” When I hear that, I picture some drunk trying to do just that.

So when I look around and see how often we push and not pull, I have to imagine what are we thinking or drinking.

Ropes are for pulling, not pushing. Without pulleys that can change direction, to pull obligates a person to be in front. We pull people toward us. We can’t push them.

Think about the difference between pushing and pulling in your life.

At the office or the shop, a real boss leads the way. He is in front pulling. To push, he or she would be sitting back telling everybody what to do from the corner office. There would be no cooperation. "Do this" or "do that" sounds a lot like a drill sergeant barking commands as he pushes his recruits. It is in the field of combat or on the mountain of challenges that one looks for a leader pulling his troops forward, not yelling from the rear.

We parents do a lot of pushing. We believe that if we push our daughters and sons forward, they will grow up better. But without someone in front to model what to do, children hang back clinging to the familiar. It is tantamount to an adult pushing their children from behind into a dark cave. The demand to go first in this situation is not an act of valor but of cowardice.

When we try and fail to push a rope, we get angry. It makes us look incompetent or, at best, ineffective. We delude if we push harder and yell louder that the rope or the kids or the co-workers or spouse will magically perform. Getting upset at a child not knowing how to do something is akin to cursing at an inanimate object for its inanimation.

If we were to only change our position with us on one end and the child on the other, we would work in tandem.

Ropes are used to pull people from a torrent river. A watery death is certain except for the help from the shore. The line is thrown to the struggling swimmer, and he is pulled to safety. The rescuers draw the victim to them. On the other hand, we can only push someone into danger.

You can’t push a person to peace. Recently I learned a great lesson about pushing and pulling. A mother of a sick girl was really uptight. We are not talking just a little worried. I silently diagnosed her with pathological anxiety. She was at a point of panic. In an attempt to help her be at ease, I said she needed to take deep breaths, relax her muscles and put everything out of her mind. Don’t worry; be happy. It came across as, go do yoga while your child is dying. I was telling her what to do.

At that moment I was really pleased with my clinical self for recognizing her distress. I was eager to share my vast wealth of knowledge with this struggling mom. I pushed her. She pushed back. When things didn’t quite go right with her daughter’s care, she was furious with me. How dare you tell me to chill out when the care breaks down? She fired me. That hurt.

A wonder colleague, Dr. Brian Good, lived up to his name. He kindly instructed me how to pull and not push. He suggested listening, a novel concept sometimes in medicine. Only after knowing their concerns can we offer to pull in their direction and not push in ours. I pushed when I should have pulled.

I’m not alone. Look around and you will see a lot of us tea-toting people screaming at a rope dangling limply in front of us.

So sober up and don’t try and push a rope.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 30 years and a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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