If you’ve ever been pregnant, you may recall the mental and emotional acrobatics of swinging hormones. If not, just imagine turning suddenly and severely manic-depressive, while watching your body metamorphose on a daily basis into something unrecognizable and terrifying, all of it utterly out of your control.
I sat in the dining room of our new home, staring blankly at the warren of boxes to be sorted and unpacked. Well into my third trimester with #2, I felt whale-like and exhausted. My son was almost four years old, the center of my universe. Suddenly, panic: What am I doing? This is crazy! How could there possibly be enough love for more than one? I could not fathom loving any other the way I loved him, the single focus of my entire sphere of existence. Thankfully, the moment my daughter was born, I immediately understood the true miracle of parenthood—love is infinite. My sphere simply grew to an ellipsoid. There was more than enough love, and space in my heart, for both of them and more, easily.
As physicians, we possess a similarly infinite capacity to love our patients. Sometimes we have to work much harder to feel it, though. Like parenting, the path of medical practice is not paved with lollipops and ice cream. It’s more like an uphill dirt road with pits and grooves, erratic weather, and hairpin turns that make you dizzy and nauseated. It can also offer astoundingly beautiful scenery along the way—like parenting. Most of us come to medicine thoughtfully, and few could withstand the crucible of training without some enduring core of dedication and calling. Parent-love feels innate, encoded. You stick with it through the hard parts, driven by something primal. Doctor-love, while also born of the internal and deep, requires more conscious intention to maintain. This commitment feels far more vulnerable to external forces. Physicians’ social and emotional exhaustion can lead to disengagement, hardening, and reticence to a system we feel impotent to change. We get burned out, and everybody suffers.
When we dig deeper, though, and uncover the original reserves of humanity and compassion that first called us to this work, when we nurture and cultivate them, we find the love. We not only survive, we thrive. Everyone benefits—ourselves, our patients, colleagues, family, communities—we can literally save the world. We can achieve this by reaching out, sharing stories, judging ourselves more gently, and withholding our negative judgments of others.
A doctor’s medical practice, like life itself, will go through phases. The focus may change over time, and the fundamental mission remains the same. Why do we do this work? The answer holds the key to our fulfillment, if we can remember it through the hard parts.
Like parents, we physicians share the hard dirt road, and traffic can get heavy. We can choose to ride alone, or with a cooperative group that takes care of its members, and doesn’t leave anyone behind. We can share the vistas, take pee breaks, and pack healthy snacks. If we build our riding tribes right, we can ensure that each of us has more than enough love for the journey.
That last paragraph resonates. It’s a variation of parental wisdom through the ages, the wisdom that says, “Pick your companions carefully, because who they are, you will become.” It’s easy to feel out of control, but we generally have more control than we realize.
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Thank you! Leadership and doctoring resemble parenting in so many ways. In medicine we now have an aversion to ‘paternalism,’ and I think we may be throwing some positive aspects out with the negative. Patients deserve and require autonomy, as do children, and a strong, communicative physician and parent can still provide valuable guidance!
I’ve re-read this a few times, substituting teacher and writer and other professions and see interesting parallels. (I’m very much on a careers/vocation theme these days.)
I’m also working on a post that I’m a bit stuck on about intentionally re-framing the idea of the “uphill battle” into a journey as a way to embrace our work, whatever it may be. I’m still working it out. Your post gives a fresh perspective, esp the idea of journeying with others. 🙂
I just saw your latest post, is that the one you mention here? It looks related…
So many metaphors, so much fun to write! 🙂
Related, yes, I’m on a theme these days. 🙂 But I’m also working another one. A fun coincidence that you touched on the same ideas with a different spin.
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What a beautiful post. Like Nancy I found myself inserting other professions into the sentences. And you reminded me of how it felt to be expecting my second child…Learning to build a tribe to share the journey is something I have been realizing I need to do. Thank you for writing these luminous posts.
Thank you, Melissa! We humans are social animals, aren’t we? Looking forward to more of your art and writing, too. 🙂
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