When I entered college, I wanted to be a chemistry major. I had no idea what college chemistry would be like, but it was the class I loved most in high school and something I was pretty good at. The town I grew up in had little more than 3,000 people and more gas stations than stop lights. My school didn’t have Advanced Placement classes or partnerships with local hospitals or medical centers (in college, I’ve learned that this is quite common for private schools). I did things I loved though; I cheered for our football and basketball teams, started a Poet’s Society club, wrote for my blog, and voraciously read books on science and technology. There wasn’t a lot to do (anything to do) in my hometown, but I was happy doing what I liked. Then I traded my small town for a big city and my slow life for a new adventure.
In addition to studying chemistry, I knew that I wanted to become a doctor and researcher. The fear of failure terrified me enough to commit myself to one thing: studying. I’ll admit that studying became quite satisfying to me. It is the ultimate form of flexing the mind to remember loads of information, a challenge I enjoyed. However, my issues started surfacing when this was the sole focus of my life. Each semester, I successively added layers to this formula; first, a couple of club leadership positions, then a few extra tutoring jobs and eventually a paid research position. The activities were cumulative, and soon enough I felt like I was about to cross a threshold of “too much.” I did things that I truly enjoyed (like shadow a cardio-oncology physician, volunteer to teach kids chemistry experiments and host birthday parties for cancer patients) but felt like the balance of my life had been tipped a little too far in one direction. Though I was happy and even excited to have such incredible opportunities, something felt missing.
I reflected on my first encounter with the beautiful and delicate world of science. Junior year of high school was when it dawned on me that math has a purpose (to explain chemical and biological phenomena, of course) and when I first fell in love with writing. I was also the co-captain of our cheerleading squad and an active gymnast. I compared my life then to my life now and realized that I had begun to foster my love for science in such a way that it suffocated some of those other passions. I still wrote often but only secondary to my scientific and medical ambitions. I did yoga every now and then (a back injury had ended my cheerleading days), but it was not a priority. My other passions were not just off-balance but completely pushed off the scale.
During a particularly hard semester, I used writing as an escape. I wrote daily, feverishly and took care to practice often. What I found was that through allowing myself to love something other than medicine and science, I became better at medicine and science. I didn’t feel deprived. I was more focused, joyful and optimistic towards my studies. I felt more balanced than I have since I started this journey to becoming a physician. Time spent studying microbiology was balanced with an afternoon or two spent reading a book and writing my thoughts. The days I spent pouring over organic chemistry mechanisms were complemented with a mindful and meditative yoga practice. Slowly, but steadily, I saw my life balancing out. I felt an inner sense of satisfaction with my pursuit of becoming a physician and with my passions for things outside of medicine.
I didn’t think it was OK to love something else. A life devoted to medicine should be confined to loving only medicine, so I thought. I am now reframing this mindset into a more inclusive perspective. I see how writing, meditation and yoga, even spending time with friends, will make me a better physician and researcher. I have begun to undo the tethers that held me so tightly and free myself to explore other passions. This doesn’t mean I love medicine and science any less; it just means I can love other things as well. I’ve realized that it is not only acceptable but, in fact, healthy to love other things. Doctors and patients are just words we use to describe one human with medical knowledge helping another human in need. Loving other things is inherently human, and maybe one day I can use my passions outside of medicine to connect with and grow closer to my patients. If that’s the case, then I’m perfectly OK with loving something else.
Mary Barber is an undergraduate student who blogs at musedwithmary.
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