My sister is nine years older than I am. We went to different high schools and currently live over 500 miles apart. Our outlooks on life frequently clash. She surpassed my stage of life many years ago. She is a fashion-designer-turned-illustrator who attended art school, and I am a medical student.
Despite all of this, we talk on the phone at least once every single day. Our conversation topics range from the merits of a sweet versus savory breakfast to our thoughts on perplexing professional decisions. Either way, her presence in my life brings comfort alongside life’s stressors. As I’ve recently transitioned to the clinical phase of medical school — and therefore now hold a more “traditional” work schedule — our calls have become shorter, and I’ve begun to appreciate the effect of these calls on both our relationship and my broader life perspectives.
During the pandemic, in particular, we relied on one another’s omnipresent advice as we crafted our personalized work-from-home routines. Once, during one of our daily mid-morning phone conversations, my sister excitedly said, “I can’t believe we can both structure our days however we want. Our lives are, like, so similar right now.”
Immediately, I became defensive. How, by any stretch of the imagination, are our lives similar right now? I am learning about the physical structures that keep blood pumping throughout the human body, while you are painting pretty colors on a piece of paper, I thought. Maybe we talk on the phone during neighborhood walks in two far-apart cities at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and maybe we both sit at our desks late into the night, but our similarities end there. How dare you compare our careers? Do you not know how hard I work? Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I hesitantly replied “Yeah, sort of.”
When I think back on my reaction to my sister’s efforts to relate, I am ashamed of my initial assessment that my work was more important than hers. Would I have always been so defensive? Or has medical school conditioned me to hold my work in such high esteem in order to protect my ego from inevitable critiques from superiors? Is my defensiveness a product of the medical education system, societal regard for health care professionals, or am I simply just rationalizing a blameworthy reaction from my own character flaw?
Upon further reflection of my resistance to my sister’s comparison, I also wonder if my response stemmed from my insecurity about the future — a fear of impending changes to what had become a “comfortable” preclinical life routine. Succeeding in medical school during a global pandemic required one to become exceedingly comfortable at home, despite overarching feelings of isolation and a craving for in-person learning. Ultimately, that lonely studying proved worthwhile, as I can now apply my knowledge in clinical rotations with real patients, but I also miss holding daily innocuous chats with my sister and working comfortably from home amidst the chaos and tragedy unfolding in the medical world.
Regardless, I have since shed this layer of arrogance and now conceptualize my sister in a different light. I finally realize that she was not wrong; our lives are similar. Raised as the bookends of two boisterous brothers, we both crave control. While I help patients choose appropriate treatments for their lifestyles, she helps clients materialize their aesthetic dreams for major life events. I hope that my presence brings comfort to patients, and I know that my sister’s presence brings comfort to me. She creates art, beauty, communal events, laughter and love. My profession helps them live, but her profession is why they live.
If I ever lose appreciation for her projects again, or those of any other human, I will know to reassess and reexamine my values. Instead of resorting to defensive comparison, I hope to uplift colleagues and friends alike. I find humility to be the most admirable quality in the physicians I have encountered, and I strive to emulate them in my own practice and life.
Image used with permission from artist.