Physicians need to recognize the power of vulnerability

One of my best friends from high school is battling with leukemia. I remember days hanging out in my room, listening to music (we were both huge REO Speedwagon fans), shooting Nerf hoops and talking about life (mainly girls at that time). We were not sure of what life would bring, but we knew we were destined for big things.

Denny was always more confident than I was at the time and I would listen to his advice closely. He seemed to have most things figured out. I was struggling with my own identity, caught between my Indian and American friends. I would often put up a façade to people in order to hide my deep insecurity. An insecurity about my name, my skin color, my parent’s accents, etc. It was a tough time but in retrospect a much-needed experience. My time with my Indian friends gave me confidence (especially with girls) that shaped me into the person I am today. Denny would often ask me about these “other” friends and why I felt the need to keep them separate. While he was often teasing, I knew that he genuinely wanted to meet them. With Denny, my insecurities fell away. He knew me for all of my faults and still wanted to be friends.

I remember a game that we used to play while shooting hoops in my room. If I made this shot, then so and so would like me. If he made his shot, then the girl he wanted to ask to prom would say yes. We were in search of “sure” answers to a never ending list of questions and concerns. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were sharing something very valuable yet so rare in our society (especially as we grow up): vulnerability. Our questions were not filtered and carefully worded to hide our inner struggles; they were, in fact, our deepest fears, and we shared them boldly with each other.

I still struggle with many things. How do we raise good kids who care about the world and not just their next video game? How do we find the balance between pushing our children to their full potential and letting them enjoy their childhood? How do we create a close-knit family in the midst of competing activities and distractions?

For a few things, I suffer a lot. Am I on the path toward a meaningful life? What will I be remembered for when I am gone? Will I reach my full potential? Is anyone else asking themselves these questions?

I am still searching for answers, but I will no longer suffer in silence. I am tired of pretending to know all of the answers. I am tired of hiding my struggles. I used to think that admitting weaknesses made you weak. How could I possibly influence and lead others if they knew about my shortfalls? What kind of father would I be if I wasn’t a strong enforcer of the rules? If people realized that I suffered from self-doubt, would they have the confidence to follow me? So I learned to put on a façade: assertive (aggressive) in my approach, critical of others with different points of view, and wanting to be right more than effective.

Sure I gave lip service to buzz words like “teamwork” and “communication” but I was more interested in hiding my insecurities rather than becoming a real leader. As I have been told many times, I often steamroll my way through life not concerned with the carnage all around me.

About a year ago, I came across a quote: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle”. As I began to look around, I realized that this is true. Everyone is, indeed, suffering in their own way. This suffering can come in many forms. It may be a life filled with distractions (TV, alcohol, gossip) that helps hide the pain of unrealized potential. It could be an excessive focus on our child’s popularity, athletic performance or academic achievement that helps to hide our own feelings of insecurity.

It could be a real battle for your health that makes you realize what truly matters in life. Whatever the cause of the pain, we all suffer in some way. We are uncomfortable in the present but anxious for the future. We try to stabilize an ever-changing external environment while our internal world never finds peace. The problem of suffering is exacerbated by our unwillingness to discuss or even acknowledge it.

I am grateful to have had a friend like Denny growing up and am even more thankful that he will make it through his battle with cancer. We have all been blessed to have these types of friends. Someone who we shared our deepest secrets, our big dreams, and many laughs with while developing into the people we are today. These people touched our core and made life a little less lonely.

We need to reach out to these friends and remember the power of real connection. The power of showing who we really are. The power of admitting we are afraid. The power of vulnerability.

Sanj Katyal is a radiologist and physician executive.  He blogs at My Optimal Life.

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