Who are you?
It’s a simple question. It’s also an impossible one. When asked, we answer with a name. But a name is a sound, not an identity. We quickly follow up with a job title. But a job is what we do, not who we are. The distinction is important.
Earlier this summer, Emily stumbled through the door and fell into my arms after her last shift as a medical resident. She was sick, exhausted and spent. It seemed a fitting physical, emotional and psychological accounting of the true costs of residency.
“Hand over your old life for 4(+) years and we’ll hand back your new life for the next forty years.” That’s the deal residents across the country eagerly accept. Why then, after willingly sacrificing so much to achieve their goal, do physicians have such high rates of burnout?
I suspect in many instances it’s a case of mistaken identity. Residents learn to answer the simple question, “Who are you?” with the simple response, “A doctor.” They, like many of us, often forget to wrestle with the impossible part of the answer.
Emily and I often discussed the importance of work/life balance, but it was a hilariously theoretical conversation. Residency unequivocally prioritizes professional development over personal development, so we had precious little time to practice that balance.
We signed up for a cooking class once, but I had to go by myself because Emily was called to the hospital for an emergency. I still remember the looks of pity my fellow classmates gave me as I frantically explained that I did in fact have a real wife – which sounds exactly like what a guy without a real wife would say.
Emily and I ran the Chicago Marathon together, and at the finish line kept right on running to catch the train. Emily had to hustle to make it to work on time.
As I held Emily on the couch that last night of residency, the pups jumped into our laps. Eko and Penny knew nothing of Emily’s struggle the past four years, but they were just as eager to love and comfort her. That’s who dogs are.
In love? Depressed? Ecstatic? Exhausted? A dog happily welcomes you home regardless. Money, accolades and status similarly hold no sway in a pup’s heart. Dogs accept all our changing and complex answers to the question “Who are you?” with the simple request the answer begins, “I’m with you.”
Between Emily’s last day of residency and her first day of work she decided to take six weeks of vacation. Six weeks sounds like a lot, but if you saw Emily that night you’d probably think it wasn’t nearly enough. So how, in just six weeks, could we salve the wounds of residency and help prepare Emily and our family for a successful and happy future?
Simple. We treated each other like dogs.
First, Emily slept like a dog. Eko and Penny are world-class snooze machines, but Emily put them both to shame in those first few days. In the few sleep-walking moments Emily was awake, I could tell she felt compelled to check in at the hospital. To reorient herself and reaffirm her identity. Instead I closed her laptop and ushered her right back to bed, where the dogs happily napped at her feet.
The next week we loaded up the pups and drove to Vermont for a vacation on Lake Champlain with Emily’s family. We blissfully disconnected from time, space and the internet. With Eko and Penny leading the pack we spent our days hiking, swimming and laying in the grass. We turned off our alarms, turned off our phones and tuned in to the present moment.
After our time in Vermont, we helped my mom move out of her house in New Jersey. Eko and Penny provided careful supervision. Together we hauled out boxes of my old trophies, clothes and trinkets I’d preciously stashed in the attic. I once held on to these things to help me answer that vexing “Who are you?” question, but it was clearer than ever the things which define me were no longer, well, things.
What defines me? Dancing with Emily in our kitchen, racing across the beach with my dogs, staring at the ceiling at night wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the rest of my life. The answer depends on the moment, but I’ve learned it’s certainly not something I can store in a box.
After all our time on the road, I’m still not quite certain what dogs think about cars. Did Eko and Penny have any idea I controlled where the car took us? Did they think the car was the master of our fate? Or maybe they thought of the car as an engine of chance, each turn of the key a gamble, or an act of faith.
In the end, I don’t think the pups gave much consideration to where we went or how we got there. Their only concern was that we go on the journey together. They greeted each new destination with the same routine. A stretch, a shake, and a look back at me which said, “We have no idea where we are and no idea what we’re doing. Let’s find out!”
Unsurprisingly, we found what dogs always find – opportunity and possibility. The opportunity for adventure and the possibility of great discovery along the way. The familiar sentiment is true – we travel to find ourselves. And when traveling it’s certainly helpful to have a guide, or in our case, a couple of guide dogs.
One evening we sat with those dogs, watching a summer sunset, lamenting the impermanence of all things. The sun sets on the horizon, then on vacation and, in the end, on our own lives.
The truth is as simple as it is brutal – you will lose everything.
Nevertheless, in an effort to ameliorate those losses we often struggle feverishly to anchor ourselves to material things and structured identities.
As Emily and I waxed philosophic, Eko interjected with a mighty yawn before curling deeper into my lap. We both laughed with the realization we’d spent our time mourning the waning sun while our dogs had simply savored it. Dogs, like the rest of us, lose everything. But they live in a state of preternatural joy because unlike us, they don’t try to keep anything.
Since then, Emily and I vowed to keep hold of fewer things. Both fewer material possessions and fewer immutable ideas about who we are. So who is Emily? Six weeks ago I think she would have told you she’s a doctor. Since then she’s untethered herself from that singular notion and embraced the opportunity of her profession, rather than the identity.
Last week, after an incredible summer of love, adventure and learning, Emily assumed her new role as an attending OBGYN physician. I never doubted Emily’s clinical skills, but thanks to a bit of help from Eko and Penny, I’ve never been more confident of her (and our!) future.
It’s a future which undoubtedly contains loss and heartbreak, but it’s a future we’re eager to experience nonetheless. Because we’ve learned to hold tightly to one thing, and one thing only.
When we ask ourselves the impossible question of who we are each day, we begin our answer, “I’m with you.”