…thoughts on hiking, med school, and life…
The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind. First there was the Ancestral Health Symposium (more on that later- if I ever get my thoughts together), then there was the flurry of activity that marked the end of my Family Medicine Clerkship (topped off with a nice 2.5 hour exam), and before the dust settled I was off to the airport to make the most of every hour of the one-week vacation that my school grants third year medical students at the end of the Family Medicine Clerkship. I spent that week touring Colorado with my long-time best friend.
I expect that everyone has heard the phrase “It’s the journey, not the destination”. A quick internet search suggests that this gem comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), though this is unsubstantiated by any reference… Sourced or not, it seems to be a sentiment that most people can get behind. My recent mental meanderings- while hiking, while musing about med school, and while thinking about life- have me wondering otherwise.
I enjoy hiking. As the demands of my degrees have changed I’ve had to take a step back from my equestrian endeavors and embrace other activities that can be picked up and put down a little more easily. I’ve had a pretty good season for hiking thus far- hitting up a number of beautiful locations. Some, like my recent trek up Matterhorn Peak in Colorado, were out and back trips, while others, like Falls Trail at Rickets Glenn in Pennsylvania, were scenic loops. When it comes to hikes, these two adventures were very different. Climbing the Matterhorn was, in all honesty, a grueling trudge through rather stark scenery to “bag” a 13er (a peak over 13,000 feet- Matterhorn is 13,590). The Falls Trail at Rickets Glenn, on the other hand, is a non-stop feast for the eyes of waterfalls and lush greenery that takes you back where you started, with no single “goal” for the trip. In the context of this post, one could easily argue that the former was all about the destination while the later was about the journey.
I said that the trek to the top of Matterhorn was a grueling trudge. I’ll admit that I was rather ignorant of what I was getting myself into when I boldly posited that “We should climb Matterhorn.” Honestly, I made this statement based on the general location (in the San Juans near where we wanted to camp) and the name (named after the Swiss peak- which has a much higher death toll!). I didn’t quite realize when we set out the magnitude of the mountain we were climbing, nor the type of country we would be traversing. Unlike the lush countryside I am used to exploring back east, much of the hike up to the summit was above the tree line, in alpine tundra. While the trip to the top was interspersed with pauses in which I appreciated the absolutely awe-inspiring views, it was a hike that in all honesty was rather dull. The top, however, was anything but dull. Visually, the uninterrupted views of the Rocky Mountains extending for miles were breathtaking. Personally, the satisfaction of successfully climbing (I’m mildly averse to the term “bagging”) a large named mountain was immense (and I did it in Vibram Five Fingers- an additional triumph). Was the journey worth these end satisfactions? Yes! But in this circumstance- the destination certainly trumped the journey.
Med school is also a journey. Much like the climb up Matterhorn, parts of it are grueling and significant portions are unpleasant. There are, however, moments of awe and wonder.
There are people that grew up knowing they wanted to be a doctor; I was not one of them. In fact, I actively told people I would not be a doctor when I was asked the dreaded “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. Even as I completed college my inclination was always towards research and not clinical practice, and I committed to an MD/PhD program with the thoughts of using the clinical knowledge (and the professional clout of the MD) to pursue medical research. Much like climbing Matterhorn- I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed on to attend med school. The MD/PhD degree was a destination, something to be obtained without much thought to the journey.
Now that I am in med school, and I recognize the magnitude of the effort required to reach this goal, I wonder- if I knew what I was getting myself into when I embarked, would I have started? While it is surely not the case for everyone, I entered med school with my mind on the destination, with almost complete ignorance of the journey that entailed. It has been, and continues to be, one hell of a journey. There are many aspects of this adventure: the people I have met (classmates, friends, professors, and patients), the events I have experienced, the emotions I have witnessed, the intimate details of their lives that patients have shared… These have made for an incredible experience, and are things I would never have experienced without the end destination of a degree in medicine.
Destinations change. Sometimes they are unreachable, sometimes they are not what you expect, and sometimes they are just a point on the way to a yet further destination. They do, however, inspire journeys. Journeys vary based on destination, and while life is not a destination, one might argue (and indeed I do) that the journey of life gets more interesting when you choose a destination.
Choose a destination. It can be big or it can be small, but it should be something you choose. The journey of life seems much more interesting when you are chasing your own goal than when you are treading the path of someone else’s expectations. And don’t worry too much… you can always change your destination if a better one comes into view.