As I punch away at these keys digesting, all that I’ve learned at the Global Missions Health Conference last weekend, I’m consumed with an echoing truth. Truth that has the potential to pull us out of the ruts we dig. And here is that truth: the “how” of life is greater than the “what”. Today, I challenge us to stop fixating on what specialty to pursue, what setting to work in. To be sure, these questions deserve answer. Even so, we exert far too much energy on the abstract, long-off decisions, and far too little of it on developing fulfilling lives of virtue in the present.
I’m writing with the assumption that you, like me, are a planner. You have-except for that one semester where you decided to become a beat poet- had a vision for your life. And while the details may have shifted somewhat, the focus rarely wavers. Do not mistake me, I truly want to applaud you for your ability to plan and achieve goals-it’s a feat few desire, and fewer still accomplish.
But I’m afraid that we- and particularly me and my more neurotic kin- have missed the point. We’ve focused so long, so intently on making the right decisions to meet our goals, that we have never stopped to answer the question of how we will do the thing once we arrive (not that we ever do). But herein lies the trick: the life we set down for ourselves today defines how we will live in the future. We aspire to become great physicians, but how might we become great?
One does not simply become a thing by desire alone. We know this to be true with the “what” of our lives. We do not attain success in school by random happenstance, falling into the right opportunities. We must act upon desire. So why then do we foolishly believe that the how is any less important? Why do we slave away at homework, but fail to cultivate kindness, pursue patience, engender integrity? The “how” of life is no more happenstance than the “what”, but we treat it with such levity. Make no mistake, the “how” of life is a serious business that requires the utmost planning, care, and action to achieve it. We cannot pretend that becoming “good” men and women is any more of an accident than becoming a physician, and yet we do. We are fixated on the what, and forget that the how matters all the more. How I love my patients matters infinitely more than what I will treat them for. How I treat my co-workers and classmates is much more relevant than where I live.
We may balk at the idea-it is after all, so much more tantalizing to think and act on the “what”. It is much harder to down the bitter medicine that is “how”. You and I have bought a kind lie; that finding the right career one-fitting your needs, desires, skills, and talents- will bring us the fulfilled life we seek. I assure you, this is wrong. Instead, know these greater things are found in the “how”. If you, like I, long for a life filled with honor and joy and strength and virtue and contentment, we must ask ourselves hard questions about how we live today. What we might become is the result of how we live now. I challenge us to ask the question-how might we live such lives?
Think of the great men and women of history. We venerate them not precisely for their great acts, but because of the character that they acted with. Let us emulate them: let us examine our deep-seated desires so often mired by life’s toil. Meditate on the virtues we long to live. Root out the encumbrances that hinder us from becoming men and women committed to our ideals. Fill your circle with those possessing commendable character. And do it now. Living lives of virtue is not the job of “Future Me”.
I’m afraid that our culture of “what” has poisoned our minds and hearts to this truth. Do not succumb to its sweet taste. We must consciously, daily, pursue lives of character, and this, I assure you, is no easy task. There will be days where we are too weak, too hurt by the world. Hold on, be strong, get back up when we fail. I promise you, no one who persists in such pursuit will come up empty handed.
I will leave you with the words of the great engineer Zefram Cochrane: “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”
Medical College of Wisconsin- Class of 2019