Picture yourself at a gathering. It could be with friends, family, coworkers, anyone familiar. A stranger comes up to you. Maybe they’re introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Typical small talk (yuck). They ask “What do you do?” How do you respond? This is typical of our social contracts. If you’re an adult, you have a job. Perhaps it’s more than that. It’s a career. It’s an esteemed profession. It’s a calling. So, you proudly say to this person “I’m a __________.” Then the social contract gets a natural extension, until one or both (gosh I hope it’s both) agents agree that this intermingling has met its natural conclusion and you move on to whatever it is you really wanted to do in the first place.
That’s how it works, until it doesn’t. More specifically, if you don’t work in the colloquial sense. I’m going to focus my attention selfishly with this one, because that’s what Dr. Strange experienced. It wasn’t comic drama, and I think there are quite a few people who can relate to this. Your occupation can give your life a daily purpose. It consumes your waking hours. It provides the discipline (and cash) that leads to freedom to pursue other goals and food in your gut. But what if it’s more than that? There are a few basic energies you can focus on a regular basis:
-What you do well
-What you are passionate about
-What earns you income
Those things don’t have to align, but it is oh so convenient when they do! Dr. Strange appeared to have that once. He was a surgeon, and (at a cursory glance) a good one, which I’m sure led to a lucrative practice. So when he couldn’t do that anymore, he lost all 3 of those motivating factors. Kudos to him for finding another calling in an unrelated area. We could only be so lucky. Physicians and other professional folks are a rare breed. We don’t tend to “luck” into our fields, even if they’re a pivot from another path in life. It’s tough to fake your way through college, med school, residency and fellowship. Some simple math for, let’s say a child psychiatrist, is 4+4+3+2 = 13 years. That’s how long they have studied. That’s how long they worked under the thumb/guidance of those more experienced. For Strange, his backstory indicates “record time” in med school (whatever that means) but then 5 years as a neurosurgery resident (real programs can be couple of years longer, folks!) Unfortunately, some things happened to his family that impacted his passion, and we already know about the accident that robbed him of his physical skills to pay the bills. When Strange lost his surgeries, he lost most of who he was.
Once again, that’s not comic book drama. That is the life of a physician. I am a psychiatrist. I am a father. I am a husband. I’m a singer and dancer (no, really). I’m a friend. I’ve made sure to remind myself of these things, because if I ever lose my identity as a physician, I want to have other things to give me an identity. That’s why you see elderly docs in the office. Well, that and mismanaged debts, but you get the point. That’s why doctors protect other doctors and are reluctant to call out their kin for errors. That’s why some doctors appear arrogant about all things, because to them it has to be that way…what else in life is there if they didn’t learn it over a decade of dedicated study? This is why physicians have a high rate of divorce. This is why physicians have a high rate of suicide! We made a deal with the world. We put every part of our life on the back burner for the most energetic years of our life, in exchange for connecting with humanity in a visceral way that few can ever appreciate, and earn the reward of a fee commensurate with that level of training, which also leads to unyielding scrutiny, a confounding dichotomy of skepticism and naivete by the public, and obsessive traits to not make a single mistake while relearning what it means to have fundamental relationships and goals in life. So…when I asked “Why didn’t Dr. Strange become a surgeon again?” during our podcast, I had this post in mind.
Dr. Strange will always be a doctor, and I love him for that. It’s the same way I will always have a connection with anyone who endures a crisis of calling, no matter what it is they “do.”
What have we learned
When someone says “I’m a doctor,” the meaning usually goes well beyond the known realms.