There’s No Utility in Futility (Metaphorically Speaking)

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Yesterday was one of those long days that sometimes occur when you’re a doctor. (And always seem to happen on the Fridays before call weekends.)

Up at 6:30, to the hospital by 7:30, a meeting, a few consults, rounding on the floor patients, four procedures, and before I know it it’s 9:00 or 9:30 and I’m typing up my last note in the lab.

Which is when one of my patients decides to go into a ventricular tachycardia storm (which basically means that his heart is going into life-threatening rhythm after life-threatening rhythm and there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot anyone can do about it, including me.)

Sure, the defibrillator that I just implanted in him is working well. But this only means that in addition to the trauma of repeatedly going into a death rhythm, and being air hungry from his heart failure, the poor guy has to deal with salvos of rapid pacing and with being shocked multiple times by his device.

Luckily a magical and bizarre combination of drugs and electrolytes eventually stems the tide, and his rhythm normalizes, after I had put a magnet over his device and then reprogrammed it so that it would stop shocking him until he cooled off.

But by that point there’s this mixture of an adrenaline dump, and fatigue and hunger and as I’m putting in orders and notes documenting the whole encounter, I start to do the unthinkable.

I start to feel sorry for myself.

Which is insane.

By any metric I am one of the luckiest guys around.

If I were to be an undifferentiated fetus deciding which country I would like to be born in, then I would very likely choose America.

(Sure, there’s a small chance I might choose an enlightened social democracy like Sweden, or maybe even Canada, but in a world where Somalia, and Syria, North Korea, and the Congo exist that’s really just splitting hairs.)

And then I would choose to be born into a nuclear family with a father and a mother and a sister who I always knew loved me. And I’d pick a nice city to grow up in, like San Francisco. And a good education spoon fed to me.

And I would choose to be male. And I would choose to look white.

And I would choose to be married to a woman who is smarter, and a better person, and better looking than me. And more importantly I would choose for the marriage to be a good one, with great communication, and enduring attraction, and real friendship.

And I would choose three healthy children, each one different from the last, but all perfect in their own right.

And I would choose a rewarding profession where I get paid very handsomely to help people. And it’s mostly a lot of fun.

You get the point. I’m a lucky dude. And I should never feel sorry for myself.

But no matter how lucky I am, it is, unfortunately, possible for me to feel sorry for myself.

And it’s almost never a good idea.

Not only does it perpetuate my own unhappiness when I fall victim to this trap, but it makes me less attractive to those around me.

Who likes to listen to other people complain?

I certainly don’t. Which is why I try not to complain to other people. It’s a form of vanity for me to avoid this. I want to look good. I don’t want to be a drag.

And then a few minutes later I start talking to one of my colleagues and we get onto a conversation about his brother who is a police man in Oakland California. And how he recently had to shoot and kill someone who was trying to run a car over his partner.

And how he is afraid every second of every day at his job.

And then I think again about my patient in the next room. Minutes ago he was flirting with his own mortality, and getting the equivalent therapy of being kicked in the chest by a donkey over and over again.

And thinking about these two guys really helps me to nip self-pity in the bud.

Which brings me to one of my recent pet peeves. Articles like this one:

There’s a lot of stuff like this going around Facebook.

Maybe doctors are working harder than they used to, (though I sincerely doubt it.) And maybe med school debt is outrageous. And maybe our salaries are going down (and will continue to.) And maybe there are frivolous lawsuits to worry about, and maybe insurance companies are painful to deal with, and maybe paperwork is a drag, but if you’re an American doctor like me, then you’re probably in the luckiest 1% of the top 1% of the top 1% of lucky human beings on face of the earth.

Even if you hate your job. Even if you picked the wrong specialty or even the wrong profession. Even if, like me, you have over $200,000 in student loan debt, you make a good enough salary to be retired within 5-10 years if that’s what you really want to do. And it’s not like you’ve got to shoot someone or fear being shot, or to mine coal to reach this goal.


Not me after a hard days work…

So what non-doctor is going to feel sorry for doctors?

When we write or distribute self pitying pieces of journalism like this, then we are wasting crucial empathy on ourselves.

It’s not like injustice doesn’t exist. It’s not like there aren’t people who actually need our help, and for whom we can advocate.

And karmically it all works out better when we resist this urge to complain. Because when we feel sorry for ourselves we make ourselves unhappy and unattractive. And when we treat other people with kindness and compassion we make ourselves happier.

So why not do the selfish thing? Why not choose happiness?

And you know where I’m going with this don’t you?

It’s much harder to recognize your own good fortune when you’re running on a treadmill of debt, no matter how much you make.

And since I started taking control of my financial life I have found that building wealth is surprisingly simple (more so for me than other’s I’ll admit). All I have to do is spend less, and save more and invest the savings. And this in and of itself makes me happier for I am not wasting my time and resources on purchasing things that don’t make me happy in the first place.

And as I am starting to build a buffer of savings and I can see it growing, I am feeling ever more empowered to make choices that bring more meaning to my life.

Which makes it easier and easier for me not to feel sorry for myself every day.

Which is a good thing, on many levels.

And so yesterday when I finally left the hospital, I found myself tired and hungry.  But I was far from miserable.

I went to a local greasyspoon called Killer Burger and had a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a Diet Coke.  (It was way after 6:00.)


Damn, if that didn’t hit the spot….

So who has it better than me?  No one.

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