Six degrees of separation

When I was sixteen, I would spend those precious minutes before the first class of the day competing with my friends for who could find the nine-letter word in the newspaper wordfinder fastest. There would be a hurried trip to the library to pick up the morning paper, a race to our locker-loitering space and excited conversation once it had been found. A good friend and I would then gather up our books and head to class, where we would compete for who could tie their tie better. While rapidly swizzling our fingers around well-formed double-Windsors, we would discuss in fine detail the course of the rest of our lives. If you hadn't noticed by the nerdiness of our morning activities, there were few day-dreams about mansions and fast cars, as nice as those things would be. The two of us would talk about which degree we wanted to get first, and second, and third, and calculate how many years it would take to compete our respective educations. I expected to graduate with my Arts, Science, Architecture and Law degrees, peppered with a few Masters courses on top and a PhD, by the time I was about forty. Oddly enough, these are some of the fondest memories I hold of high school.

Sixteen-year-old tie-tying extraordinaire me would potentially frown upon the course I've taken. Science came and went, Medicine surprisingly found its way into the pile and Surgery has followed course. Architecture, Law and Arts got left behind, though a part of me still aches for the knowledge those fields hold. And, as of last week, I am for the first time since age three not a member of a formal learning institute. That is, unless you count my pending membership to an online course in Spanish. I made it through kindergarten, primary school, high school, undergraduate university, medical school and a masters course, only to find myself already itching for another degree. I found myself scrolling endlessly through university websites reading about higher degrees in narrative medicine, trauma care, research and public health before realising it was way past my bedtime. It appears that, at least in one respect, my current self has lost none of that teenage voracity for learning.

Since finishing my exams in early December, I've guzzled through ten books, downed hundreds of news articles and scooted through several TED talks. I've found myself researching whatever topic comes to mind and reading medical texts on trains. It appears that this is an addiction not easily lost.

But in those heady days of university, we did more than just learn. We formulated ideas and tossed around opinions. We built on the thoughts of our colleagues and created frameworks for how we envisaged the world. We promised each other that we wouldn't lose sight of our seemingly enlightened visions when we entered the work force. And yet, in that respect, I seem to have failed.

I found myself on a tiny balcony overlooking a nook of Chippendale, reminiscing on who we used to be with one of my very good friends. We had sat, similarly positioned, just as philosophical, a few years prior, promising each other that we wouldn't become those sorts of working adults who went to work, ate dinner and slept, only to repeat it all again the next day. We promised ourselves that we would continue to fight for political policies that meant something for the community and provided for people less fortunate than ourselves. We insisted that we wouldn't give up just because we worked long hours and got tired. But we did get tired, and we did work long hours, and after a hard day doing often thankless tasks, the call of a comfortable mattress is much stronger than the pages of the newspaper. When I was in Medical School, I remember asking my hospital-based mentors what they thought about the Rudd-Gillard takeover that had happened overnight. They all looked at me perplexed, and I returned the expression with disbelief. How could work make them so disconnected from the ways of the outside world?

There comes a time when work is so all-consuming that we forget how to function in the real world, and it's to our own detriment. We cease to understand the lives of our patients, with the many dimensions of work, family and play that they appreciate. We lose touch with our own humanity and the ability to care about the big picture. We forget to be politically engaged for the benefit of those we serve.

A friend told me once that the study and practice of medicine is perhaps the greatest waste of intellectual talent that has been borne upon the world. While I'm not agreeing with such a broad-sweeping statement, I often find myself reflecting upon the lose of so many great minds to a profession that is often repetitive and scripted. So many of us once had great dreams of changing the world and so many of us have settled for changing prescriptions.

I used to be the sort of person who wanted to change the world. I believed that my own tiny size 6.5 glove hands could weave together individual stories to make a more understanding tapestry within our society. I thought that I could bring together free moments of thought with questions on how to make the world better, and use that collective wisdom to enact change. I thought I could bring together those who wanted to care with those who most needed someone to be caring in order to empower young, rural and under-resourced teenagers. I thought I could work with the government to introduce policies that used our tax-paying dollars for more action and fewer audits. I used to be invited to speak at or attend conferences. I used to work with a team on advising government youth policy. I used to be that person. And I've become the person who gets tired and goes to bed, resisting the torment of the alarm each morning because it just never seems like enough shut-eye.

And I was reminded the other day that I gave up. Momentarily, I felt flat. I felt like old-me would be so disappointed with current-me for postponing bigger ideas for present exhaustion. I gave up on the bigger dreams, at least for a while, to follow a protracted and linear, concrete path towards career fulfilment. That I chose surgery, for all its many years of training, with the hope of re-engaging with aid work, governance and policy when I was "done." I was reminded that I got exhausted and it all got too hard. I was reminded that I used to want to instigate change to help hundreds or thousands or millions and now I help no more than thirty people in a day. And while that help is not without purpose, it's no longer that far-reaching progression I had once hoped for.

The world outside of the hospital walls seems to be falling apart. Things are the best they've ever been - we have reduced early-childhood mortality, we've improved late-life care, we have extensive education available for all, we have sewerage and sanitation, roads and public transport. But things also seem so terrible - there's a massive cognitive dissonance between the relative safety of our middle-class Australian lives and the struggles of those less fortunate both here and in other parts of the world. We fail to act effectively on climate change. We consume endlessly with little regard for the long-term effects of our actions. We are so caught up in being busy that we forget to be mindful of the future.

Once upon a time I wanted six degrees but I've found that the answer to the world's problems does not just lie in furthering my education. It relies on the application of knowledge and experience to the questions that plague us all. It's time get re-acquainted with the bigger picture.


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