It’s been two and a half years post-pandemic, and I still don’t feel normal.
There’s a dark veil hanging over my life. I feel oppressed, unable to practice the way I want, unable to live and think in ways other than this abnormal new biological pseudoscience I’m not expected to question so that I’m more inclusive.
There’s a sense of lost purpose like I no longer work to feel fulfilled. Instead, I work to serve some nameless, faceless overlord that has no connection to the intimacies of our collective human experience.
I feel abused. I feel fragile, and I know I’m not alone.
According to The Physician’s Foundation 2022 Physician Survey: Part 1, more than half of physicians report social drivers of health (SDOH) challenge them to experience stress or frustration daily or weekly. Six in 10 physicians (63 percent) report they often have feelings of burnout when trying to address their patient’s SDOH. In contrast, 80 percent believe the United States cannot improve health outcomes or reduce healthcare costs without addressing SDOH.
As physicians, we’ve slipped from being on top of the proverbial food chain to being among the most vulnerable in healthcare. Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly, says, “When people are in difficult situations—fear, anxiety, shame, stress—[they make] up stories about what’s happening.”
I’ve made up my share of stories to convince myself things are OK. But in mid-2022, in the wake of this nonsensical Alice-In-Wonderland world, I’ve decided to stop drinking the Kool-Aid® and take Brown’s advice.
That’s why I write poetry.
Tell one of your colleagues you’re a poet. Their lips tug into a bemused smile. That’s nice, dear. Sounds like a great hobby. Whatever you need to do to feel better.
Yes, poetry is an emotional release. But the art of poetry, the pursuit of multifaceted communication through abstraction and symbolism, requires a way of thinking that we, physicians, are decidedly uncomfortable with.
Our safety lies inside the cave of analytic, reductive perspectives; facts, endless problem lists with targeted quick fixes, and of course, the overarching pursuit for the absence of disease resonating through all aspects of life, recently exalted in our insane, war-like approach to eliminating a microscopic, inanimate organism.
Perhaps this Descartian separation from our pulsating world and each other, this “scientific” ideological thrust co-opted by A.I. that compartmentalizes everything and anything, has led to the downfall of contemplative, philosophical, and, therefore, whole-person medical practice. And with its reduction, perhaps, the happiness and health of our patients—and ourselves.
Can we change our future by writing poems? Here’s my experience.
It was the mid-80s, and graduation was on the horizon. Mrs. Menzies, our high-school English teacher, a strict Welsh marm who’d coached us through three years of stunted Shakespeare, the syntactic rebellion of E.E. Cummings, and the proper use of pronouns she’d be jailed for today, asked us The Question.
“What are you going to do with your life?”
“I’m going to be a doctor,” I blurted, bypassing any resemblance to higher cortical function.
She was quick on the mark.
“Why?” she snapped, her eyes splintering my veneer.
I swallowed, then blurted again. “Because I want to make money.”
Ah. Such are the mentally-challenging delusions of youth. On that fateful day, my lover, T.S. Eliot, and I divorced.
Instead, I started a new affair with Harrison and Guyton, deadbolting the door to my beloved haibun for twenty-five desolate years. Menzies’ sharp voice faded into the cacophony of societal stigmatization that insisted poetry was for sycophants who couldn’t pass their MCATs and get a real job.
My mother was their greatest champion.
On deeper reflection, high-quality poetry is a whole-brain experience. It requires not only deep personal insight but also a comprehension of the entire human experience in its totality—past, present, and future—so elusive to us as we stand in front of glowing EHRs tippity-tapping without once looking into our patient’s eyes, minds filled with performance metrics spoon-fed from ghostly father-figures of health insurance and corporate executives.
Do what we tell you to do, and you’ll get paid.
Is this why more and more people don’t trust us anymore? Is this why they refuse to take our expanding lists of prescription medications, obediently follow our advice or get themselves quadruple vaccinated?
Along with this growing mistrust comes our personal and professional exposure, our upsetting fragility.
Do we trust our own advice? Are we doing the right thing? The pressure of slogging through testy conversations behind closed exam room doors, longer work hours, and truncated patient encounters takes its toll.
Unfortunately, science and abstract vision have become so polarized that we’ve left far behind the philosophical contemplation of humanity that was once married to science. Instead, we’ve pursued this Descartian obsession with the nanomolecular, genomic reduction to the point where the absence of disease now resounds in stereo throughout a multi-trillion dollar healthcare system.
And how has that helped us get healthier? How has this helped us heal?
Poetry isn’t about rhyme. Most publishers cringe at it. Rather, they want insight, authenticity, tremulousness, and courage. They want the full breadth and depth of our personal suffering mirrored into the collective. They want what’s said and not said, dimensions of our experiences distilled into skillfully crafted metaphors. They want allegory, allusion, alliteration, irony, sarcasm, humor, and a profound sense of emotional control. They want a perspective that sees the future and knows our fate, should we choose not to change.
And, they want it in Times Roman size 12 font, 40 lines or less.
To be authentic is to be incredibly brave. To be brave, as Brown says, is to be a leader. To be a leader is to see the goal clearly, yet return to the devil’s details and work every day to bring that vision into our reality.
Whether it’s the obliteration of our disquiet or a massive paradigm shift in medical practice that we seek, maybe our next best step is to write a poem.
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