The doctor who realised his life was on pause

Would you believe me if I told you that you aren’t completely living? That your life – like some TV show – is on pause. At first, it sounds unreal. How can it possibly be true? Like most life’s insidious traps, it happens without us noticing. Before your eyes, you find yourself retired and wondering where life went. That’s what happened to Ryan.

A surgeons regret

A surgeon’s journey is considered a long one. Hopefully, long enough to turn you into a cut once, measure twice kind of person. But for a moment, let’s put the surgeon under the knife. More specifically, the path to get there. 

There’s a hand surgeon I visited recently, Dr Ryan. But what did it take for him to get there? It begins with an undergraduate degree. This can be anything. I’ve seen some people major in drumming. 

Four years pass in the blink of an eye, and he’s moved on to medical school. Before he knew it, four more years passed, and with medical school out the way, he was finally a Doctor. That puts our count at eight years. 

That wraps it up, right? 

There he was, operating on hands. Some of his classmates chose brains, and others the heart. Thankfully, no. First-year medical interns get nowhere near these parts. To tell you the truth, I thought this was how it works. One day you finish medical school, and the next, you’re a surgeon cutting into patients or a physician diagnosing disease. As if you finish medical school and your name is drawn from a raffle and poof! Like magic, you’re operating on brains, diagnosing cancer or reading impossibly confusing medical scans. 

If that’s expectation, reality can’t help but grin. A doctor’s intern year looks more like a newspaper internship – except the writing isn’t creative or enjoyable, and the lunch break is shorter. But it’s only a year, and a year that is as exciting as it is stressful. 

With his internship down, Dr Ryan was onto residency. Now he’s starting to feel a little more like a doctor. This went on for a couple of years as he learned the ropes and had time to explore all the different areas of medicine – eventually deciding orthopedic surgery was for him. 

We’re now ten years in. It shouldn’t be much longer, right? Dr Ryan began his tenth year as a registrar and could begin working solely in the area he loved – orthopedics. After three years of this, he passed his surgical exams, got through the interview and nabbed an orthopaedic surgery training position. Consultancy was in his sights. In the medical world, a consultant is a fully certified physician in their chosen field. After three more years of training, studying and operating, the day finally came. Dr Ryan was officially an Orthopedic surgeon. Fifteen years down. But hands are a little different. It’s a sub-specialty of orthopedics. Off he went for another year of specialty fellowship training. 

Sixteen years later

That’s it. He was now a qualified hand surgeon. Here is what you don’t see. He studied hard for his first 4 years to get into medical school. Once he was in, he told himself he could relax and enjoy life more. Medical school laughed at this idea, and his narrative changed. Now it was… Just finish medical school, then I can relax once I’m working and have some money of my own. 

Too bad medical school was relaxed compared to the competitive postgraduate medical world. With specialty positions scarce and students abundant, it looked like he would have to lift his foot off the breaks for a little longer. It began at eighteen, and it ended at thirty-four. Only, it didn’t end. Dr Ryan’s next thought: now I have to start my practice… Then I can relax. 

In reality, the stepping stone journey of medicine is no different to any other profession. If you’re a lawyer, you work to make partner; if you’re an engineer, you work to become the project manager; if you’re a labourer, you work to become the foreman. No matter the occupation, starting is never the end of the journey – it’s the beginning of another. We follow the rainbow to the pot of gold at the end, and every time we find it empty apart from a small note.

Gold moved to the next pot. It’s right there – just beyond that rainbow in front of you. 

Why are we like this?

It’s a lie. Not just any lie, but the only lie believed by everyone in every country. The lie of… Once I have done this, then I can relax; then I can be happy; then I can live. 

As with many things, it is a remnant of our evolution. A happy and content group of hunter-gatherers are slow to spread our genes across the globe. Natural selection’s goals don’t always align with our own. Happiness is one of those areas where disagreement is loud. This is why we rapidly adapt to life, a term called hedonic adaptation. It pushes us to keep searching, keep moving, and keep achieving. A happy tribe tends to be a stagnant tribe. And here we are today, having colonized the world yet still left with this remnant of our ancestors. Still believing the lie that happiness is just around the corner, only one more achievement away. 

Where did life go?

The most distinguished people of our time seem to ask this question the most as they come to the end of their life. People who possessed vast amounts of wealth and power. 

It’s ironic that the people who we believe have it all find themselves living the shortest of lives. Not because they die early, but because they live late. 

And so there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long — he has existed long. 

Seneca

We all do it. Every goal and triumph leads to setting another. As we come to the end of our lives, we realize that we have only lived for a few years. You might exist to ninety yet only live for a handful of years. This is what happens when we live for the destination and not the journey. Life isn’t A or B; it’s the space between. A sailor who measures her life by the trips she completes lives a very short life. 

Taking back time. 

Dr Ryan is almost fifty. Yet, how long has he really lived? We sit down and relax into the film that is our life, only to hear the kettle go off. We press pause. As we return to the couch, the washing machine buzzes. Then our phone goes off, the kids come home, and dinner needs to be made. Before we know it, we have left our life on pause without ever hitting play again. Just as soon as we’re done with one thing, a new one takes its place. 

Naturally, we try to solve the problem of time with the same thinking that created it – we just need more. So we turn to productivity hacks, time-saving devices, gizmo’s and gadgets only to end up with even less time. It’s not how much time we have but how we use it that matters. 

 It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

Seneca
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