I laid at a forty-five-degree angle in Dr. Anne’s dental chair as she used what appeared to be a mini-ice pick to scrape along the gum line of my teeth. The pick sounded like chalk on a chalkboard, and I physically shuttered with each pass.
“Am I hurting you?” Dr. Anne asked. With a mouth full of objects, I could only grunt a “No.” This is the way that conversations go when talking to a dentist. The doctor leads the discussion, and the patient’s only means of communication are facial expressions and meaningful grunts. It amazes me that such primitive methods can pass any information. Surprisingly, it is not only possible but also relatively efficient. If I were a paleolinguist, I would imagine that language started similarly. However, in that case, both parties grunted.
Since I was being chaired for a routine cleaning, there were moments when I could respond to her questions in a more verbal fashion. Naturally, these intervals were short, as she was soon back in my mouth scaping and scrubbing. I have known Dr. Anne for 30 years; she is my dentist and friend. So naturally, we always have to catch up on our respective lives, even in such awkward interactions as a dental visit.
Dr. Anne comes from Eastern European stock, and because of this, we share a commonality in many of our motivations and values. Specifically, we both believe that education combined with hard work offers the greatest likelihood for a successful and productive life. I agree that other equally valid constructs, such as ambition combined with a skill or trade, can also lead to a successful life. However, for the sake of this post, I will focus on the education/hard work option as it is the most germane to today’s discussion.
If you believe the above premise and wish to have a successful life, you will become as educated as possible and combine that education with long hours of hard work. Such dedication requires focus and a lot of sacrifices, and most who choose this path will use psychological ploys to deal with the grueling efforts necessary to move forward. This is especially true for individuals in the health care field. We will convince ourselves that our actions benefit not only us but also those whom we treat. It is essential for us to feel that we are making a difference. As we put more effort into our craft, it is easy to identity our personhood by what we do rather than who we are.
Dr. Anne is a compassionate and caring person, and since I have retired, one of her main lines of conversation is to inquire about how I am doing in my new life. It is difficult to adequately express this metamorphosis in the short intervals between tartar removal, and so I will ponder such things in today’s post.
I believe that many individuals wish for a better life. Sometimes they base their desires on fantasy. Without effort, they think they will become famous actors or strike it rich. Others, like myself, take a more pragmatic approach. Two consistent themes that teachers told me were that I was smart and approached problems in a wholly unique way. In other words, I was able to develop solutions by thinking outside of the box. Beyond these positives, I was also saddled with negative attributes; I was poorly coordinated, blind in one eye, and overweight. Those negative did impact my self-esteem, but I would not allow them to determine me.
As a practical person, I felt that it was necessary to assess my strengths and weaknesses honestly. My strengths were wholly my academic abilities. I thought I would be much more successful as a university professor than a used car salesman. As some of you know, that was precisely my plan which I eventually subverted by going to medical school. As you can imagine, such goals required dedication, devotion, and a willingness to delay gratification. My life became an exercise in production, and I consistently produced something from good grades to diplomas. As I moved up the ranks, my identity seemed to center on what I was producing rather than who I was as a person. I was the kid who broke the test curves, or the college graduate, or the medical student, or the chief resident, or the attending physician. People knew me for these things, but I was and am so much more complex than a title or position.
Also, I grabbed onto these identities as they were accessible identifiers of my personage. I would rather have someone know me as the kid who broke the exam test curves instead of that fat, crossed-eyed, clumsy boy. However, there has always been some rebellion inside of me. I rarely initially identify myself as a doctor when I meet someone as I challenge them not to categorize me. I want them to accept the real me instead of placing me in the “doctor box.” I want people in my life who have depth and who can see my soul and care about me because of who I am, not what I am. I don’t need shallow people in my life. I would much rather have a handful of friends who accept and value me for who I am rather than a thousand acquaintances who like me for what I do.
I was never worried about retirement as I’m a person who has many interests. However, as my retirement approached, I found myself creating structured activities similar to work jobs. I had plans and goals. Although this sounds logical, it was entirely wrong for me. I needed to choose a different path. That path is complicated, and I feel incapable of adequately expressing it in writing. However, I will do a generalized post on some aspects of it in the future. Today, I will touch on a tiny part of my retirement adventure. This is the response that I would have given Dr. Anne if dental tools and a suction tube did not burden my mouth.
My life seems to be directed by two opposing forces. I plan, problem-solve, and move towards given goals. It would appear that this has been a very successful strategy, but that would be a lie. The most impactful things that I have done in my life have occurred by other forces that seem beyond me. When I quiet myself and listen to them, I am moved in a direction very different from what logic would demand. I could give you many examples, but today I will provide you with one germane to today’s topic.
As many of you know, I am extremely close to Tom. It is not unusual for me to see him every day, and he is one of the very few people whose presence I never tire of. We are two individuals who are highly similar yet entirely different. If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you also know that I abandoned my usual protected and shielded stance to pursue his friendship. Over many years Tom has become an integral part of my daily life, and I believe that we are both better because of it.
Recently, Tom has been both blessed and burdened by an excessive amount of work. This has converted my usually affable, curious, and kind friend into someone who is more stressed, irritable, and abrupt. He tries to control his stress by curating his time only to include productive activities. Although he is willing to spend time with me, it is clear that those periods increase his time pressures while not giving him the emotional break they were intended to provide. To state this more simply, Tom needs some space.
Since he has become such an integral part of my life, you may think that such a change would be devastating to me. I wholly admit that I genuinely miss my daily meetings with him, and I look forward to the time when his obligations are settled enough that we can resume our adventures. However, it would make little sense for me to sulk over this reality when there are so many other options in my life.
Two of the biggest gifts of retirement are the gifts of time and introspection. So now that I have some extra time, the question is, what do I do with it? Of course, there are many productive projects that I could tackle, but there are other things that I could do that would grow me as a person.
One of the things that I have learned is that there is a world out there that most ignore. It is a rich world available for free that is often rejected in lieu of costly experiences that advertise excitement. We are happy to pay large amounts of money to see a foreign sunset, while we ignore similar ones that we can view outside our kitchen windows.
Over the last few weeks, I have made a concerted effort to metaphorically “look outside my window.” I’m an avid walker and hiker, and I have walked over specific local paths hundreds of times. What would it be like if I viewed those experiences differently and made an effort to observe what was around me differently? In addition, I always walk the same paths, yet my town is replete with trails, some of which I have never walked on in the 30+ years that I have lived here. Why not explore some of those?
I decided that to accomplish my goals, I would need to bring along two of my “friends.” Violet, the campervan, would assist me in reaching those paths that were slightly beyond my normal walking radius. I would also bring along my Fuji X100S camera who would serve as my creative assistant. This relic of a camera is very “old school” and would require me to be deliberate in my photography. I thought that using the Fuji would make me more thoughtful in my actions.
The paths that I walk on are replete with beauty during spring, summer, and fall. However, they can be bleak during winter. This is especially the case when it hasn’t snowed. The Midwest is flat, and most of the path’s scenery would consist of leafless trees and brown prairies. Could I find the beauty in these things?
As a photographer, it was equally important for me to capture images in a way that would represent how I saw the scene in my mind’s eye. I would need to go well beyond the automatic settings of the camera if I had any hope of conveying this vision.
It is easy to appreciate a walk on a lovely spring day, but what does a winter walk bring? In reality, it brings an entirely new experience. Winter walks are walks of solitude. The paths are barely used and near-silent. One’s perspective is different, as wide leafless areas offer previously unseen vistas. With inspection, so many things that could be dismissed become objects of interest.
In the past two weeks, I have hiked on seven different paths, two of them completely new to me. At first blush, all of the trails look very similar; they are completely different with observational effort. My creative challenge was to try to convey what I was seeing to someone else. How far I could push the creative envelope? Will anyone understand what I’m trying to convey?
Now, back to Dr. Anne. Without metal implements in my mouth, I would tell her that I have discovered entirely new parts of my psyche by de-emphasizing being productive and emphasizing being creative. I have connected in a much deeper way to who I am. In essence, I have become more human. My approach may be counter-intuitive, but it has been successful—one of my thinking outside-of-the-box solutions.
Many of us believe that our purpose in life is to produce. We are here to make a better society and planet. Naturally, there is truth in that statement, but such a premise also has a dark side. If we are determined by our professional lives, we live a lie. Yes, I helped people, but if I wasn’t there, someone else would have taken on that role. The reality is that most of my accomplishments will be forgotten, and my life’s work will fade away in short order.
I don’t want to discount my life as a doctor. I am proud of what I accomplished, and I genuinely feel that I did good in this world. However, I know that this one aspect of me is not the total me, but how do I discover who I am? Sometimes, by walking on a winter path, camera in hand, eyes open to see what I didn’t see before. I believe that we know what our growth path is. However, we often ignore that information. Outside forces like influencers direct us; at other times we are moved by our own ambition and drive.
I would like to end with a story. There was a man who loved chocolate cake. One day he decided that this was the only food that he would eat, and he set out to eat chocolate cake for every meal. Initially, he felt that he was in control of his destiny as he had made such a directed decision. However, over time the chocolate cake seemed less special, and he felt empty and confused. At night he would dream of vegetables, but in the morning, he would discount those dreams and continue along his cake-eating path. Now, eating the cake became a chore, and it no longer gave him pleasure. He was burnt out. He decided to do some introspection by randomly writing things on a piece of paper. “Cake, carrots, peas, lettuce, hamburger, cheese, brussel sprouts…” and so it went. He never thought much about those foods before; why was he thinking about them now? Then, it became clear to him. Those unimportant foods were really very important. Together, they enriched his diet and made it more complete. Yes, he loved chocolate cake, but it was just one of the things that he needed in his life. He felt that it would be difficult to go back to a normal diet as he had made such a big deal about taking control of his food life. However, what were his options? He was missing out on a full life by doing the same thing over and over again. He decided that he would have to admit that he was wrong to gain what he was missing. In the end, he won on several fronts, he gained what he had lost, and he realized that he was the one in charge of his life. It was OK to change course if his current path was no longer getting him to where he wanted to be. He now knows that a slice of chocolate cake is good, but it is only part of what he needs.
Here are some “creative” photos from my recent walks.