She started the day by announcing that I should take violin lessons.
I was on an elective month, spending a lot of one-on-one time with an attending physician whom I greatly admired. And she had had a terrific piano lesson the day before, which was why, upon learning that I had played the violin seriously from childhood through college, she insisted that I restart my practice.
Because it will feed your soul, she explained. And when you feed your soul, you come to your patients whole. You’re not missing anything, not holding onto anything, and they can sense that. They can sense whether they can share everything with you or whether you’ve got your own stuff going on. Nourish yourself and you’ll be completely there for them. You’ll be a better doctor.
It was nothing I hadn’t told myself – or heard from my husband – before. I have written about both my longing for more music in my life (“Music Memory”) and about the difficulties of finding time for life outside of medicine (“The Hardest Thing”) on my blog during medical school. I love the phrase, the idea, of feeding one’s soul. I first heard it during one of my medical school rotations when the course director encouraged us to make time for just that. And in my subsequent training, I have known several attendings who take music lessons, and one who attends weekly Pilates classes religiously.
The problem lies not in embracing the concept – Do things I love that make me feel whole as a person? I’m there! – but in executing it successfully. The doctor who encouraged me to take violin lessons, and, in fact, began Googling local teachers for me, told me that I just needed to carve out the time.
It sounded easy enough. After all, this was an elective month with hours far more forgiving than usual. At home that evening, I scanned my calendar and pinpointed two opportunities for some soul nourishing: the next morning, which was scheduled for a later start, I would dust off my violin. And two evenings later, I would take a class at the yoga studio I had been meaning to try.
I was proud of my progress. With a little bit of effort, I could get myself back on track, moving toward that coveted work-life balance.
That night before bed I skimmed through my emails and saw two requests from coworkers for meetings regarding some work-related projects. One wanted to meet the following morning – Great! I didn’t have to be at the hospital until late anyway – and the other suggested an evening meeting a few nights later – Perfect! We would be able to make some progress on our grant proposal.
Only after shooting off enthusiastic responses did I realize that I had just scheduled work time into the slots that only hours before had felt gapingly open, just waiting to accommodate any soul-nourishing activity I could fathom.
And that’s when several things grew clear. In order to make any of this happen, in order to really – really – incorporate outside-of-medicine enrichments into my life, I would need to schedule them. As in, write them on a calendar and honor the commitments just as I would an appointment at the dentist or to get my car serviced. But doing so would require that each non-work activity occupy time that might otherwise have been dedicated to work; it is impossible to simply squeeze one more thing into a finite number of hours. Wanting to, yearning to, believing with my whole heart that it is important, won’t make it just happen.
Which is why the phrase carving out time suddenly feels so apt. It depicts the active process demanded by such a task; one does not just passively find or halfheartedly set aside the time to do something. One must diligently and painstakingly labor, chiseling scratch by scratch into the rock face of each day, to carve out the space in which to nestle those things that nourish them and make them whole.
Nourish yourself, she said. Feed your soul. She could sense my Yes, but response, and she was ready.
If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your patients.
Time to get out the chisel.