Medicine For People!

September 2015

Story of my Life

The Stories of our Lives

You were born into a story.

At first, the main characters were your parents and siblings. Time brought a growing cast of characters and an ever larger stage.

Writing your Own Story

By the time you are old enough to be reading a newsletter like this one, you are well into the making of your own story. People find comfort in seeing their lives as a story, as detailed in this article in The Atlantic Monthly.

Back in Wisconsin when our children were small, I complained once to a co-worker how tired I was of waking up at night to answer their cries. Without hesitation she replied "Well, that's what you're there for." I never felt bad about waking up in the night again; each time I knew that this was part of my story, something that gave meaning to my life.

Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and assigned to work in the infirmary because he was a physician. He discovered that those prisoners with a reason to live tended to survive, while those with no reason usually did not.

Patients tell me that his thin volume "Man's Search for Meaning" has helped them reconnect with their own stories in a healing way. Everyone's life is a story for good or ill. The precious moments of your life separate your past from your future. Part of your story has been written, has been "safely stored away in the past" as Viktor Frankl phrases it, safe from change and decay.     

The Future

Beyond these precious memories lies the mystery of the future. Let's think about that.

How long will your story last? This Social Security Administration table lists the number of years of life remaining to a person of a given age. For a male age 70, as I am, the table lists 14 years.  When I discussed this with my brother last month, he exclaimed "Oh, no! Mom is still alive and you are so active and healthy! That can't be right!"

Well, I certainly hope that I do live longer, especially if life continues to be as pleasant as it is now. But how should I plan? The 14 years isn't guaranteed, nor is tomorrow for that matter. For planning purposes, I'm going to accept the 14 years and know that it will be wrong one way or the other.

A Different Kind of Clock

The clock on my wall measures out my life in 12-hour increments. That is arbitrary. I could make a clock with an hour hand that went around once a year, so that I could look up at it today and see the hour hand showing me nearing the end of this summer. That puts a different complexion on the day, does it not?

Then it struck me that I could make a clock with an hour hand that went around once in my lifetime. If I did, what would that clock look like?

My Own Chapter Headings

First, I made up some chapter headings for the story of my life. Some of these are self-explanatory, such as childhood and the various phases of my schooling. Less conventional is the time immediately after my training when I wondered where the story of my life should go and spent some years on a sailboat and at a meditation school and with friends, interspersed of course with temporary work to keep the checks from bouncing. You can read this chapter here. .

That period of time included marriage, following which we started a family. I worked in Milwaukee, then put my family into a trailer while we toured the country and returned here to Port Townsend. Initially we had a medical office in our home at Point Hudson. Once we had moved the office out of our home, we remained in the duplex, first with children, and then with the nest empty. In 2002 the children's mother and I divorced, which separated the "empty nest" period from my current bachelorhood.

Here are my chapter headings:

Chapters in my own story

Age start

Age at end

Years Duration

I am a child at home

0

5

5

School

5

17

12

Duke University: Chemistry degree

17

20

3

Duke Medical School

20

24

4

Medical Training Bay Area

24

26

2

Who am I? Seattle, Sailboat, France

26

31

5

Milwaukee: General Practice, start family

31

37

6

Trailer and move west

37

39

2

Office in home at Point Hudson duplex

39

43

4

Raise family in Point Hudson duplex

43

53

10

Empty nest

53

58

5

Single

58

70

12

What's left?

70

84

14

Through the magic of the spreadsheet pie-chart function I was able to turn this into my life clock:

Pie Chart

Pen and Ink

We write our stories with our minds, our emotions, and our bodies. The more powerful these are, the more compelling a story we can write for ourselves and for others. My goal as a physician is to strengthen and preserve each of these elements within you.

The Real Stories

Our popular culture seems to be fascinated with the lives and doings of the rich, the famous, the "celebrities." For me, one great reward of working as a physician is that I am able to share in a small way with the lives of the people who make the whole thing work, who care for the children, drive the trucks, make the paper in the mill, and on and on through the whole family of humankind who give our world its richness and its vital substance.

I enjoy hearing people's stories, and I often wish that people would write them down. The stories you tell me are always engaging, always instructive, often inspiring, and a treasure that your friends and children and grandchildren would love to have.

Story's End

Each story carries with it a prologue (the stories of your grandparents and parents that led to you), a beginning, and an end. The clock I drew for you above has space penciled in for an ending.

The beginning of your story was entirely structured by your family situation. Only gradually were you able to exert more control over your life and your story. Time came, and time went, and you scribbled page after page.

The pages come to an end, eventually, and I've cared for many people at that time. No matter how strong-willed we are, we cannot resist nature's ultimate power nor change her plan.

I've seen many people bear their suffering gracefully and let go with gratitude.

Believe me, it's an inspiration and it has greatly reduced my own fear of the end.

story: 

Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.