The Way

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But somehow I wonder if

Despite their silent exterior

Away from the purview of others

In a darkness all their own

They endure the painful pruning of transition

Of transformation

Old is new

And new is you

And butterflies bleed too.

There are those among us who are treading on unmarked ground, fresh soil devoid of the comfort of patterned steps heralding the way. We are straying from tradition and daring to redefine the boundaries of our professions as we venture in new directions. It is not just that we don’t fit the mould, but that in some ways, we reject the idea of moulds all together.

For me, social justice medicine is the new direction. It is the practice of clinical medicine in a thoughtful way that creates and sustains health equity. It requires community engagement, civic participation, political advocacy, apt use of new media and technology, and interdisciplinary collaboration with local organizations and community leaders. It is essential to build a more just, equal, and free society and so far, it doesn’t really exist.

6 months ago, at the end of my pediatric residency, I took a position as a community pediatrician and have been eagerly piecing together a career in the practice of social justice medicine ever since. Sometimes, in moments of uncertainty, when my mind is quiet enough to admit my fears, I find myself in the throes of a great transition, worried I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going.

In medical school, I took a class called Let Your Life Speak. It was based on a vocational guide by the same title, and it helped medical students identify our gifts and consider potential careers. In the book, author Parker J. Palmer presents the idea of “way” or the path on which each of us walk toward our purpose. I’ve been looking for my “way” since college and as my blog header articulates, it is an ongoing journey. Recently, I found some clarity.

In any hierarchical assent, “way” seems to form in front of you, with each opportunity striding towards the next. But the truth is, that “way” was already there, worn by the feet of others, and ending at a predetermined destination. Sometimes paths are created as “way” closes behind you. When opportunity doesn’t knock, it quietly closes the door, making new, unseen paths available.

To stretch the confines of what it means to be a doctor, I have to stretch my understanding of how to get there. In doing so, it has become clear that “way” is not linear and does not have directionality. It is the iterative process of curiosity, experiment, discovery, and failure that builds the experiences necessary to create an unconventional career. Although the cyclical process of preparation, pruning, and readiness may be difficult, the product will be beautiful and uniquely yours.

But somehow I wonder if

Despite their silent exterior

Away from the purview of others

In a darkness all their own

They endure the painful pruning of transition

Of transformation

Old is new

And new is you

And butterflies bleed too.

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The Beyoncé Phenomenon and Eliminating Poverty

I connect to the idea of purpose. The idea that every one of us is here for a reason and has something unique and wonderful to share with the world. It’s ironic that despite this beautiful gift percolating inside of us, there are moments when our daily tasks seem disconnected from our purpose, from the contribution our existence makes to the world. This disconnect is perhaps most pronounced in circumstances of poverty. In some ways, poverty of resources or control can devolve into poverty of purpose. (Others have written on this). What is worse, the very systems that are meant to address poverty, risk re-enforcing this disconnect by failing to invest in people and communities. Some have termed this the institutionalization of poverty.

Now, I am no expert on poverty. But as a pediatrician I am particularly aware of the power present in the vulnerable among us and I do know about investing in people. It is all about recognizing other people’s contribution (or potential). To do so, we must first connect to OUR contribution. Nelson Mandela said it best when he quoted a Marianne Williamson poem saying, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The best (and most vivid) recent example of this is Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime show. When asked about her upcoming performance at the pre-bowl press conference, she simply stated, “This is what I was born to do.” And judging by a performance in which even her strut seemed unapologetic-ally fierce, I think we all believe her. There is something powerful about her being who she is that inspires her fans to excellence as well (Am I being too transparent here?)

Bringing it back to medicine, I think there is a similar reciprocity inherent in works of service – whereby in finding something in ourselves and nurturing it, we can then identify and nurture the gifts of others.

In my mind, understanding and embracing this concept is key to meaningful welfare reform and any hope of eliminating poverty. Yet, sometimes our daily tasks as service providers seems disconnected from our role in empowering people and communities.

Here are 4 simple questions we can use to reflect on our purpose and connect to the people we serve:

1. What are my unique gifts and how do I use my gifts in a way that matters? (Meaning)

2. How can my gifts invite others to share their gifts with the world? (Empower)

3. How can I value the gifts of others at times when they are not aware of them themselves? (Insight)

(And for those of us in the policy world) 4. How can we make this process generational? (Security)

Ultimately, welfare, or providing for the well-being of others, should not simply be about the money we give to families. At its best, it should be about maximizing a community’s opportunity to contribute to society in meaningful ways – ways that empower, provide insight, and create security. Doing so, will require a public investment in education, health, and the economic development of the under-served. But the benefits have the potential to reverberate throughout the rest of society; as the plight of the least of us will continue to define our character as a nation who claims that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Did I just try to connect self-actualization, poverty, health, and Beyoncé? Guess I did.

How have you helped others realize their contribution to the world?