What My Year Adrift Taught Me ... What It Can Teach You

Michael Burg, MD

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After roughly 40 years of schedules, deadlines, goals and objectives, accomplishments and constant to-do lists I’ve paused … and drifted for the last 12 months.

That time adrift — which will terminate for a time in July 2021 — has taught me a great deal. Many of these lessons may apply to your situation.

First, the back story

In February of 2020 I worked, what would turn out to be, my last shifts in Emergency Medicine. In March I traveled a bit with the intent of traveling quite a bit more, but that plan short circuited. In June of that same year I quit the job I’d held for 20 years. There was no plan; it was just time to do it and the right time to do it.

Thereafter I drifted for a while, quite a while as it turned out.

For some time I’d had the intense desire to disconnect and think, so I did. I also filled my time with writing and a bit of consulting work. Lazily applying for various weird and wonderful jobs a doctor could do also occupied some moments. But, no one was serious about hiring. Funny how a pandemic crystallizes priorities.

Essentially playing like a child was good for me, but there’s only so much one can write and only so many hikes to take locally; so I got a simple job, as a hotel houseman. This minimum wage job provided some social involvement while still allowing for eight hours a day of unfettered thinking time. Plus I got to see firsthand how the “service sector” of our society gets treated. It’s not pretty.

Then I quit that too.

Now I’m adrift again, but with a plan.

In July 2021 I’ll be working in the pharmaceutical industry, learning pharmacovigilance (AKA drug safety on a grand scale). Seems interesting and it’s closely aligned with patient care, so a good fit for me.

If you want to know more details please click on the links below … (or, feel free to skip ahead to the ongoing saga below)

Retiring From the Practice of Emergency Medicine
Stick a fork in me, I’m donemedium.com

Repurposed Human/Doctor for Sale
What’s next for me? You decide.medium.com

A Recertification Exam Forces a Doctor to Question His Future
My Professional Life — Press On or Move On?medium.com

How do I see all these twists and turns in my previously well-ordered life?

With what I’ve recently come to know as “radical acceptance,” that’s how.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had the idea that much of life, all of it really if you think about it, is completely out of our control. So the concept of “radical acceptance” wasn’t a stretch for me. The term is a wonderful encapsulation of what I’d already observed around me and had internalized.

Like what happened to almost everyone else on the planet, 2020/21 flipped my life upside down. I continued, engaged in life in various ways, but completely accepted that everything was suddenly and dramatically different. The universe doesn’t care if we exist, nor do viruses.

I’m OK with that.

That doesn’t mean I don’t engage with the world around me, far from it. I dance delightedly with the world around me most days. But I’m still convinced that the universe doesn’t care a whit about me and could obliterate me and my so-called plans in an instant, without a backward glance.

So what did I learn? And what can you learn too?

  • Peace & Joy
  • Drifting is good
  • Thinking is good too
  • Change = Opportunity

Peace & Joy

I’m keenly aware of the world of pain around me. After 30 years in Emergency Medicine I know that most days I’m better off than almost everyone I’m aware of, and a ton more I’m unaware of. If you look at that statement correctly, it’s likely true in large measure for you too.

Sure, life can be bad, and horrible things happen all the time to good people — unfairly — like you and me. But, it can always be worse. Or as we used to say during internship, “They can always hurt you more.” Even rock bottom has a basement.

Somehow I’ve found peace and joy in all that. Sure, I’m older, balder, fatter, more isolated and less attractive than I want to be. I can’t travel to New Zealand either. But, fuck it! I’m living! And writing. And thinking. And looking forward to stuff. And still capable of learning and adapting. I get to visit with my family. I talk to friends on the phone. I can still fit into my wetsuit and go boogie board. All my limbs are still attached. I haven’t awakened to gunfire in days.

Life is good. I’m peaceful and joyous about that, daily.

Drifting is good

It’s OK not to know what to do. Be OK with that.

Or maybe better still, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Again, the universe owes us nothing and doesn’t care that we’re here.

Enjoy that. Float down that river. Abandon yourself to the concept.

There’s a childlike joy in just doing as you please sometimes. Often … if you can manage it. Good stuff happens when you drift, particularly if you do so with your eyes open.

Who knows, you might just drift into something cool? Or, maybe you’ll just enjoy the drifting.

Drift Aimlessly — A “How To” Guide
When the Going Gets Tough, the Truly Tough … Wander?medium.com

Thinking is good too

Barring a medical disaster of some kind, the mind is the only part of us that can consistently improve with age! We can always, always, always learn and think and read and explore new ideas and commune with others and expand our internal horizons. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t peak at high school graduation.

So … if your world is upside down right now or becomes so at any time use that as an opportunity to learn and to think.

Go to night school. Read a book. Have a book read to you. Watch a documentary. Learn a language, a skill, a sport, a trick even. Surf the web for cool enlightening stuff. Explore your long-held and deepest beliefs. Watch the news and research the back stories on the reports.

You get the picture I’m sure.

You’ve got a mind. Use it.

Change = Opportunity

Just ask Zoom or mask manufacturers or Pfizer or whoever makes Lysol.

It’s true for you too.

And while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to say “yes” to good things.

After decades as a medical scientist and a leader in my field I worked for a time as a maid and a shuttle driver (the hotel houseman gig referenced above). Not your typical doctor move right? It was great! Allow me to repeat. It was GREAT!

I engaged with others, learned new stuff, had fun, earned a few bucks, experienced a part of life I never would have otherwise, had plenty of time to think while mopping, sweeping vacuuming and driving, lost some weight, saw some weird-as-hell hotel guest behaviors, came up with some new story ideas, and lots more.

Don’t get me wrong, coronavirus, and the changes it has wrought, is bad, miserable in fact. It has made the world a worse place, transiently. Things will get better. Or, maybe (and this is highly unlikely) we’ll all perish. But if that happens we’ll have bigger concerns than can be addressed in this essay. But transient badness is a reasonable expectation. It’s kinda the way the world rolls, with us in it.

So figure out what’s next for you when the world changes again and we’re back to what passes for normal or the new normal arrives, whatever the heck that may be.

Make “change and grow”--or something like it--your mantra.

If you want to talk about it I’d love to @ mburg1955@gmail.com. Thank you for reading.

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San Luis Obispo, CA
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