The past week has been brutal:
- A loved one was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
- A loved one was diagnosed with a new cancerous tumor, staging still being conducted.
- A loved one was diagnosed with a rapidly progressive neurodegenerative disorder, scuttling plans to retire abroad.
All this is in addition to watching a close friend struggle with disabling mystery symptoms for several months that have precluded his being able to work.
This prompted my wife and I to spend yesterday asking what we would change about our lives today in light of the possibility that our future plans could be so easily derailed.
Would we travel like maniacs?
I recently had a conversation with a younger relative who is mother to two kids in diapers. If given the opportunity, she claimed she would pick up a backpack and take to the road in a heartbeat.
I once felt similarly, but something has changed. Perhaps the desperate desire to escape small children has lessened? I can't tell if it's age or maturity (I can safely lay claim to the former, but only tenuously profess the latter), but I have started to appreciate certain routines:
- The early morning bike ride around the neighborhood has become something I look forward to.
- Nerds-of-the-world-unite board game night with the fellas is my stolen opportunity to preserve close friendships despite all odds to the contrary as a middle-aged dad.
- Dressing up in matching costumes with my family for a local carnival won't be something I get many more chances to enjoy with budding teens on my hands.
- Ditto for school volunteering - a highlight was recently chaperoning a couple dozen third graders on a field trip to learn the physics underlying our local amusement park.
Many of those opportunities require long-term presence on the ground to be considered (the physician author Rachel Naomi Remen has made the point that, like bingo, you must be present to win).
We like our community and feel connected to the people here. We have developed sufficient meaningful relationships over the years that we've opted for a schedule of international slow travel with kids in the summers instead of a year abroad in order to preserve and build on those relationships.
Would we opt out of medicine entirely?
This was my original fantasy in pursuing Financial Independence (FI), but unexpectedly, I fell back in love with medicine by doing less of it. At present, the challenges of emergency medicine and the decreased frequency with which we face them are sustainable.
Working a lighter clinical load has enabled me to pursue tangential medical interests that make me feel more purpose-driven and multi-dimensional, and less like a cog in dysfunctional Big Medicine's wheel.
These factors contribute to a general sense that medicine in its current form has come to replenish me more than it depletes me, although I realize this is a delicate balance.
Perhaps we'd transition out of clinical work sooner if we faced an acute stressor like a health crisis or something that gave our limited time on the planet a sudden hard deadline.
Would we spend more time with the kids?
Parenting inspires a great deal of guilt about what might have been done differently. The problem is that guilt, like most vestigial human properties, has low utility but great potential to cause harm (appendix anyone?).
I am the tougher parent - I say no more often. (I try to do so with love.)
We don't watch TV, although in the past year we've taken to an every-other-week family movie or family karaoke courtesy of youtube.
We have a display case suspended from one wall containing small bits of colored polymer clay figurines. For a couple of years, while her younger brother took his afternoon nap, my preschool-aged daughter and I sculpted. I pass the case daily, and it brings back those moments together.
My kids know me well enough to be acquainted with my faults and shortcomings - what I'd consider to be the definitive measure of knowing a parent well.
When we spend too much time together, we can drive each other crazy, and my shortcomings emerge more often, to my great embarrassment.
I'm grateful for the time we have with the kids, and we realize in the next decade that time will be diminished tremendously based on their needs and preferences. But if I'm honest, my best days are spent half with the kids and half pursuing my own interests.
I don't think I'd change that, and my wife feels similarly.
Where does this leave us?
Seeing awful things befall good people you love is a reality check, and can motivate you to get your priorities in order.
So can milestones like marriage, divorce, career highs and lows, and the birth of a child.
Burnout led me to have this conversation with my wife several years back, leading to the current trajectory we comfortable with.
Our day-to-day is far from perfect, but we ask the big questions often and adjust continually.
Life eventually becomes the sum of these frequent small course-corrections.