The Meaning of Work

Mitchell - Olympia, Washington
Entered on December 30, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

When I was a first year family medicine resident I found myself making small talk with an attending physician in between patient visits. In referring to a retired colleague I said, “When he was a physician…” I was quickly cut short by the attending who asked me, “Was a physician? Isn’t he still one?”

Immediately I could see his point as those in our profession are always considered to be part of it. We don’t “used to be,” we always are. Kind of a quirky thing that comes with finishing medical school I guessed.

I have finished residency and am well established in a rural family practice, and now I understand what I think he really meant. Being a physician and the practice of medicine is a vocation in the truest sense of the word from the Latin, vocare, a calling. There is meaning in the work of caring for others. It becomes not just what we do, but who we are. This I believe.

My point here is not that one has to be a doctor to have a meaningful work experience, but that many work experiences can be meaningful. Teaching, social work, paving a road for others to drive to their workplace, or any occupation that attempts to improve or help the lives of others can be a vocation.

In a culture that downplays the value of work over personal fulfillment and satirizes the banality of the work place, we tend to view going to work every day as something we have to do and not as something we get to do. Even doctors more and more are limiting the scope of their practices and tailoring their work hours for personal convenience. I must admit that at times I even bemoan to my wife, “Got to go make the donuts,” as the old Dunkin Donuts commercial used to go.

Certainly there are many heartbreaks and frustrations that come with being invested in one’s work. These often seem to be obstacles that separate us from finding this meaning. For me, there are insurance companies that deny they practice medicine even though they override my medical decisions; administrators who think filling out paperwork will lead to better patient care, lawyers who believe they know more about “standards of care” despite never having never having cared for anyone at the bedside.

Despite all of these external forces, and maybe in part because of them, I still know that what I do has significance. Once more, unlike many, I am fortunate to be reminded of this on a regular basis. When the exam room door closes or I sit down at the hospital bedside, there is still an intense human connection that can be made between the doctor and patient that uplifts both and reminds that this is a vocation with a higher purpose and once again I have found meaning in my work.