A patient came into the Emergency Room the other day in congestive heart failure. Because her heart was weak, fluid was backing up into her lungs, making it difficult to breathe. It came up in our conversation that she was a singer, because it had been harder for her to sing recently secondary to the breathing problems. My ears immediately perked up, because I love singing (yet have no natural talent for it), and I’m always interested to hear how professional singers got their start, and if it’s possible for someone like me to ever become a great singer with practice.
I told her I could keep a tune but that I didn’t have any vibrato. She said, “Oh, vibrato, you don’t want that anyway.” I told her my voice was weak and thready and she said, “Strong is overrated. That’s what microphones are for.” I told her I bought some vocal exercises on CD but didn’t have enough time to do them. She stopped me and said, “You should just sing. Sing anywhere. Sing in the shower, in your car, when you’re walking, when you’re doing errands around your house. Just sing.”
When I got off work that day I took her advice. I sang a little bit on my walk home. My voice was weak, and I didn’t like how it sounded, but I did it anyway. I sang around my apartment when I was cleaning and doing dishes. I broke out my ukulele, which I hadn’t picked up in months, and wrote the beginning of my “Intern Year Ukulele Song” (a much anticipated follow up to the “Medical School Ukulele Song” of last year). I had so much fun it made me wonder why I hadn’t done it months ago.
The answer is sad, but common. It’s because I’ve been waiting for circumstances to be “just right” to do the things I really enjoy. I’ve been waiting to start playing ukulele again for when I have more time to practice. I’ve been waiting to start exercising for when I have more energy. I’ve been waiting to eat better for when I have the time and inclination to cook. And I’ve been waiting for the hard part of residency to pass – wanting to get it over with – before I start doing all the things that make me happy.
But waiting is a bad habit to get into – especially if you’re waiting to start living your life. And wanting time to pass because you don’t like where you’re at is a dangerous thing to do. All we have is time. Life is a bunch of time – a series of moments that come and go regardless of how well you use them. And then you die, because we all die eventually, and it’s just a matter of how and when. You really don’t know how much time you have before that happens, so you might as well start using the time you have to its full potential right now.
If you’ve gotten in the habit of waiting for time to pass, it can be hard to break, and it can be disheartening to feel you haven’t taken full advantage of the time you have, or to wonder if you if you’ve used your time the “right” way. Don’t be so hard on yourself. This realization is a chance for you wake up and reprogram the way you look at “now” and “later.” “Now” is the only thing that’s real. Every moment is “now.” “Later” is a concept that doesn’t really exist because by the time “later” comes, it’s actually “now.” This is not a lesson you learn once and then forget. It’s something you’ll need to remind yourself of again and again.
It’s not just about enjoying yourself in the present, but about deciding what you want your legacy to be. What do you want to be remembered for? What kind of contribution do you want to make? Maybe you want to start a company, write a book, create a movement, travel the world, or be a great parent or husband or friend. It doesn’t matter what it is a long as you recognize your values and goals and act in a way that is congruent with them, at every moment you can. You don’t just plan to do it, you do it right now. Don’t limit yourself. You are much more than what you do from nine to five in order to make money to pay the bills.
The patient I saw got much better with some breathing treatments and medication to help her get rid of the extra fluid. She was still there, waiting for some tests to come back, when my shift ended, and I waved at her as I walked out of the ER. She called out to me again, “Just sing!”
So what are you doing right now (besides reading this blog post, of course) to take full advantage of the time you have? Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to put this post up, even though I’m afraid no one will like it and I doubt success is coming. I’m going to go to the hospital today and have a meaningful impact on at least one patient, even if the hospital isn’t exactly where I want to be. And then I’m going to come home and jam on the ukulele.
Photo by Neal