April 21, 2017

People : Old Friends & Burnout

Boston, August 2016

An old friend from college visited last weekend.  He lives on the East Coast so we don't see each other that often--only a handful of times since graduating over ten years ago.  Whenever I spend time with someone from my past, especially if it's been awhile, I remember the context in which we first knew each other.

Henry and I met each other in the dining hall of our dorm, sometime in the second year of college. We bonded over our love of novels and his ability to quickly make up untrue facts that I as a very gullible person would believe.  We both had vague notions of what we might want to do in the future, but as happens in college, it was less specific outlines and more general ideas.  But from the very beginning, we were all always so struck by his easy kindness, vast humility, and natural commitment. I have immense respect for people who have known the privileges of our education and environment, and really invest in understanding what the world is like outside of that.

Now that we're both immersed in our long-term jobs, it's interesting to see how our younger selves have run their course.  He's a teacher at a charter high school where half the students come from low-income households and almost all are students of color.  So his students and our patients have some similar demographics, and we're both in careers--primary education and primary care--that rely on long-term substance to build foundations and effect change.

We swap stories equal parts about the joys of this, and about the anxieties of this.  I've always felt that a huge part of preventing burnout is surrounding yourself with people who are committed and kind and patient--and also human and honest about the challenges of sustaining these qualities when faced with students/patients who like all of us can be mean and demanding.

While eating a lot of good food and walking around the city, we talked about all the things it takes not to let this fight get you down:

  • Lower expectations about what can be done in short, visible amounts of time.  As much as kids can change from age 14 to 18, sometimes progress isn't so linear.  Sometimes it never comes.  So as much joy as individual successes give, a big part of getting through the rough day to day is maintaining faith in ripple effects that are slight, distant, and often beyond our time.  
  • Keep track of how interactions make you feel.  Sometimes when there's no space from one patient visit to another, I don't process the feelings--positive or negative--that come from an interaction.  Then they surface later in indistinct but intense ways, that disorient me and probably color my interactions with other people.  Henry mentioned that it's helpful to have a self check-in after a class, and take stock of patterns.  There doesn't need to be any action perse, but a lot can follow naturally from awareness. 
  • Remember that this endeavor is our choice, one we are lucky to have (and one we can leave if it no longer feels like the right choice).  I remember this mainly by thinking back on our 21 year old selves, forming a sense of social responsibility alongside a sense of self-fulfillment.  Henry wrote his social studies thesis on how our fellow college students chose their careers, and seeing him always reminds me how unique and huge it is that we have so much power over our paths.  When things out of my control aggravate my neurotic self, I try to think back to this overarching agency.
And when you're tired, reach out to a friend who might be feeling the same, who knows you from before you made these choices.  I don't think that our selves now are necessarily truer than past ones, and it helps to reflect on where we were and how so much of that is still present, amidst all the bad shit that happens.  Burnout is real, but so are our old friends, our old selves, and the lifelong commitment to them.

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