A Country Doctor’s Unlived Life

“Just as colleges introduce our young people to knowledge of the world important for the first half of life, there should be colleges for forty-, fifty-, and sixty-year-olds to prepare them for the challenges of the second half…”

Robert A. Johnson & Jerry Ruhl

During my vacation I went to the eye doctor to have a refraction done for a pair of reading glasses. Reading my iPad at night with my progressive lenses forces me, now that I am pushing sixty, to turn my head uncomfortably upward to read through the bottom of my thick eyeglasses. With a pair of dedicated reading glasses, I will finally be able to read up close in dim light with my eyes looking straight ahead.

One of the books I am reading is by Jungian therapists Robert A. Johnson and Jerry Ruhl, “Living Your Unlived Life: Coping with unrealized dreams and fulfilling your purpose in the second half of life”. Of course, that’s stretching it for me – last third is a more accurate description of my current location on life’s roadmap.

Back when I really was closer to the halfway mark, I read Johnson’s “He: Understanding Masculine Psychology” and “Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness”. The title of my current read, “Living Your Unlived Life”, really spoke to me when I first came across it a couple of years ago: I could have done so many different things, but I made decision after decision that eliminated those options and put me where I am right now. And sometimes, in moments of doubt, I wonder what my life would have been like if I had made a different choice at one of those virtual forks in the road. I knew from age four that I wanted to be a doctor, and ever since I first visited this country, I knew I wanted to be a country doctor here. I got exactly what I wanted, but I didn’t quite consider all the consequences of making a life for myself so far away from my family and everything I grew up with.

I was a Scout, very good with map and compass, and spent many a night by a warm fire under the stars in the vast Swedish forest, Kolmården. Some of us played guitar, all self-taught, and we shared chords and riffs as the evenings grew cold and the others went to sleep in their lean-tos deep inside their mummy sleeping bags. One of my friends, C., was a year older, taller, better looking, and more confident and outgoing, but we became close over the years. He was taking business classes in High School. I already knew I wanted to be a doctor. We lost touch after I started Medical School. The only time I see his face now is on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and when I occasionally watch TV during travel; he is the head of one of the world’s biggest multinational corporations. I sometimes wonder how come I couldn’t also have been a successful businessman, but then, I don’t even like to balance my checkbook, so why would I think I could have made it in the world of finance?

Closer to home, my High School classmate, J., also knew all along he wanted to be a doctor. He stayed on at the University Hospital where he went to Medical School, went into a subspecialty, got his Ph. D., and has been head of his department for many years. He has more influence in a vastly larger organization than I have, and his life seems more straightforward in the sense that he made his career right in his own back yard; he didn’t move halfway across the world and away from his family to find his life’s work. But sometimes when we talk, he speaks of my life as more exciting; considering the path not taken causes a twinge in each of us.

I just got an email again from my army buddy, L., who also started Medical School in Uppsala when I did. A few months into our first semester, his debut novel was published. A year and a half later, he dropped out of Medical School to write full time. He was just awarded one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Sweden. Before I even met L., I harbored secret dreams of writing a great novel. Forty years later, he is still putting them out, and my first one is still more of an idea than an actual draft. In his latest email, he expressed his admiration and approval of my Country Doctor lifestyle and confessed he was jealous about my having goats.

As I sit here near the end of my week off, I think of where I am in life right now. The minutes go so fast at work, and the evenings and weekends at home are so short; I don’t often have time to think as much as I have this week. While we were cooking this afternoon, Emma said, “This is the first time you’ve really just been home for a whole week in years.”

I know the psychological task for people my age is to make peace with who we are, and to gather up those dreams and desires we never seemed to have parted with willingly, as well as the wounds we never took time to heal; we must now give them their rightful, if only symbolic, attention in our lives in order to be whole persons.

The central idea in “Living Your Unlived Life” is that the “unlived” parts of our lives can be lived out in totally symbolic form – “Doing something by not doing it”. Symbols, unlike signs, have many interpretations and can even encompass seemingly opposite notions.

So, my only multinational business is being both a Swede and an American, practicing modern, yet old-fashioned primary care medicine in rural America among French-Canadian patients.

My only sphere of professional influence is my exam rooms and the community I serve. My life is here, and it is rich with nuances, contradictions and memories. I have few regrets, and even they make up part of the unique substance of my life.

My only literary calling, at least for now, is to keep adding to this five-year-old weblog about how it feels to do the work I do.

7 Responses to “A Country Doctor’s Unlived Life”

  1. 1 annikasvea March 23, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Beautiful. I look forward to every one of your posts….thank you

  2. 2 Elizabeth March 24, 2013 at 2:46 am

    I’ve been reading your posts for some time now. Just wanted to post and say that I appreciate your thoughts very much. As a medical student just a few years in to the long road of training and practicing, I have benefitted so much from you sharing your experience and the wealth of wisdom you’ve developed. Thank you for writing!

  3. 3 Teri March 24, 2013 at 4:34 am

    And your sphere of influence and the community you serve also includes your internet readers, so how lucky are we all!

  4. 4 Gregory VandenBosch March 24, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Really enjoyed your post – thank you.

  5. 5 Andrew Brown March 24, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    Robert Frost will crop up before too long. 🙂

    You certainly have considerable literary skill, quite remarkable as it is your second language. Novels require plot and character development and all that malarkey, but your descriptions of your life are poetic gems.

    It certainly sounds as though you have lived well, and that your friends appreciate that.

    • 6 acountrydoctorwrites March 24, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, and welcome back, Dr Brown. I have missed your blog posts at “afortunateman”.

  6. 7 alhire April 6, 2013 at 8:48 am

    Great post. A lot of great points. I like it. Thanks for sharing.

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