“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
Tonight, in the month of gratitude, I feel deeply thankful for Coach Christine. I might have been a curious person all along, but it was not until I got a life coach that I learned the vast and profound value of curiosity in every realm. As I wrote earlier this month, standing always in curiosity liberates my mind. It relieves me of unnecessary urgency for an answer. I can exercise professional creativity in forming better and better questions, and the answers (often multiple, intertwined, and intriguing) emerge more easily and artfully than if I chase them demandingly.
The business of medicine is to solve problems, to heal, to cure. So we assume that the faster we get to answers, the better. And they had better be the right ones, because lives are at stake here! It’s always interesting to me when patients talk about my work as ‘saving lives.’ I can’t remember a time when I could actually make that claim, at least at all directly. But to my colleagues—emergency medicine and critical care docs, trauma surgeons, suicide hotline counselors—thank you, you really do save lives every day!
I love primary care because I usually have the luxury of ‘(living) the question.’ When patients present with new problems, as soon as I know they are stable, I get really excited. I’m liberated to get deeply curious, ask as many questions as they will tolerate, paint the big picture together. I follow the standard physiologic and diagnostic process initially, which often yields a straight forward answer and plan of care. But life and work would be pretty boring if that were always the case. When the usual suspects are all acquitted and the mystery persists, that’s when things get fascinating. This is when I really get to know a person. When I ask truly open, honest questions—the questions I don’t know the answers to and that are not meant to lead anywhere—I never know where the conversation will go. And I always learn something new and relevant, something that helps me connect. This is the information that makes a person memorable, because it is truly unique to them.
One of my favorite moments in a patient encounter is when I have to pause a few seconds to form a really good question. What do I really want to know, what am I after, what will really break open this conversation? It happens regularly, and wow, what a rush. OH, I just never know what I will learn! You’d think people would get impatient and grumpy with such prolonged, sometimes meandering interrogation. But I find that they often lean in, look me in the eye. They get on the train with me and look as eagerly as I around the next bend. What will we find? Let’s explore together!
Relentless Curiosity. It’s the funnest part of my work. I love it. And as we all know, loving our work makes us better.