Work/life

I have not posted for a while. I have been up to my ears in the work of intern year. Really, intern year is over my head and I’m trying to swim towards the top. Overwhelming doesn’t begin to describe it.

Amidst this slow-motion drowning/birth, I frequently encounter the phrase “work-life balance”. It’s en vogue these days and everyone seems to be striving for it and I have no idea what it means anymore. I begin my workday at 6am and finish anywhere between 5-10pm, with a so-far average of 7pm. That is 13 hours a day. Given that I sleep and commute, I am left with between 2-4 hours a day of “life”, if you buy that these two entities exist in dichotomous opposition to one another.  13:2-4. Can this ratio ever equal balance? Does thinking about life in these terms even make sense? When I work, am I not also alive?

Let’s turn to the original arbiter of this = that: the dictionary. Merriam Webster offers nine definitions of the word “balance”, each with sub-definitions. Scanning these definitions, two jump out as being most relevant: “equality between the totals of the two sides of an account” and “physical equilibrium, or the ability to retain one’s balance.” If you accept the first definition, then I am doomed. For the next three years, and probably for the rest of my working (ahem) life (ahem ahem), I will “work” more than I “live”. The scales will never be even. The second definition seems more forgiving, balance defined subjectively, by the internal sensation of equilibrium.  Yes, I can work with that.

On to “work”: “the labor, task, or duty that is one’s accustomed means of livelihood” (there’s life again) and “energy expended by natural phenomena”. Can we fit work into a box defined by what we are paid, or is work simply the natural extension of each breath we take? Should work be a distinct entity with boundaries around it, or should each aspect of life be seen as an part of the larger work of our movement through space, time, and each other’s lives?

Finally “life”: “the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body”; “spiritual existence transcending physical death”; “the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual.” Here is where the discussion catches in my throat. I’m glad I chose a profession where I am constantly challenged to act in others’ best interests. I think the majority of the work I do as a doctor ends up in the positive or neutral columns on the cosmic spreadsheet and I love my patients with a practical and non-grasping kind of love. But I do not feel like medicine is why I was put on this earth. When my physical body stops one day and whatever remains of me is free to roam, I don’t think it will be wearing a white coat.

What distinguishes me from a dead body is something else that I can’t fully articulate, something to do with observing the world, the thread of poetry in everything, and my love for the people I love. As I write, I am realizing that this is my “life”, my spiritual existence transcending physical death. I am here to watch, experience wonder, and love.

The good news, I guess, is that I can do these things at work, though I have to make a concerted effort (there is just so much computer work involved in doctoring these days). The bad news is that there is so much more to these things than work. I miss the quality of light that streams through the windows at 4:30pm on the west side of the house after a nap. I miss cooking myself a sweet little breakfast and eating it with tea. I miss traveling and people watching and writing letters and wondering what a given day will hold. Most of all, I miss meeting my child’s gaze eleven thousand times a day. So much laughter and understanding and surprise has passed between us and there is still so much more there…..

Maybe work is like light, both particle and wave. On some days, it’ll exist in it’s box and I’ll gratefully leave it as soon as possible to return to my life. On other days, I’ll let it seep all the way into me and me into it and there will be no separating us. Maybe I’ll just have to live in a state of tension between a desire to dive in and a desire to escape. Maybe that’s its own kind of balance.

One thought on “Work/life

  1. Thank you for writing about this, M. I, too, have been thinking a lot about it, and hadn’t realized the false and constricting dichotomy that the phrase assumes. Thank you, thank you. (See you soon! Hooray!!)

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