Spending time with my seven-year-old friend—let’s call her Angie—always brings up a number of unanswerable questions.
For instance: Why is it acceptable for Barbie to wear fuchsia, magenta and turquoise at the same time when no one else can? Why is it that around the world, nearly every child under a certain age will have sticky fingers? When a seven-year-old wears a t-shirt featuring an obscure cartoon character I’ve never heard of, can she be labeled a hipster?
These are all enigmas, certainly, but above all, this is what I ask myself whenever I see Angie: Am I doing a good job?
It’s a familiar question—one I’ve been asking for years. Am I doing a good job? With my college applications? My email inbox? My biochemistry final? The implicit idea being, perhaps, that if I accumulate enough “yeses,” I’ll know the answer when I ask myself “….with my life?”
And now: Am I doing a good job with Angie? Is she having fun? Have I made her happy?
Angie is a cancer patient I’ve met during my gap year in Malaysia. I came here for research, but living at a house for pediatric cancer patients means that interviews are the least of my interactions. It means I’m always with children—after their chemo when they smell like hospital, after their baths when they smell like heaven. And it means that there is always, always more that I can do. More dishes I can wash, more picture books I can read, more monster-truck impressions I can master. No one tells me to do these things, but not doing them would feel like failure—like I wasn’t a good friend or volunteer or gap year-er. Yet because of the ambiguity of my role and the endlessness of ways I could contribute, whenever I ask myself if I’m doing a good job here, I can’t come up with an answer.
It wasn’t this confusing six months ago. When I asked myself how I was doing at Duke, I could calculate my GPA and pull up my resume. Midterms and finals might be one-dimensional metrics, but at least they spit out an answer. Here’s a revelation: After you graduate, you don’t get grades. And only in their absence have I recognized my addiction.
Grades are a terror and an inconvenience and a burden, but most of all, they’re a comfort. They tell you how you’re doing. In theory, bad grades mean you work harder; good grades mean you’re home-free. An admirable student doesn’t master the material for the grade, but the grade tells her she’s mastered the material. Yet my post-grad world won’t give me a report card, and I’ve made the uncomfortable realization that the roles I want to play as an adult don’t come with performance metrics. There will never be an objective, uncontestable answer to the question of whether or not I’m a good friend, sister, mother or physician. There will never be a point at which I’m home-free.
Grades affirm that you’ve accomplished something. You get the test score and that’s it—sealed, shut, job well done. But the tasks that matter can’t actually be done, because they’re not really tasks at all. You can’t tell whether you’re a good community member by how many dishes you’ve washed, a good friend by how many airport rides you’ve given or a good daughter by how many Skype calls you’ve dialed. What you do is important, but the real, raw, beating heart of human interaction isn’t so much about doing as it is about being.
The Rev. Sam Wells, former Dean of Duke Chapel, talks about three forms of community engagement. You can work for people (think: soup kitchen) or work with people (think: microfinancing), or you can be with people. All three are significant, but the third is the most confusing. Being with someone means abandoning hierarchy—it means engaging with someone for their own sake, enjoying their presence without an eye for fixing, improving or doing. In Wells’ words, “It means having the patience not to search around for the light switch, but to sit for a time in the darkness.”
Being with is difficult, especially in the midst of suffering—you’re not sure if you’ve made a difference. For the achievement-oriented, it takes less of a paradigm shift to study for a physics final than it does to sit with a person in pain—with the former, at least there’s a job to do. And I suspect I’m not the only Duke student who sometimes uses the tasks that can be graded as an excuse to avoid the responsibilities that can’t.
Angie doesn’t give me a choice between being and doing. There’s not much I can do at all. See, the tumors are everywhere; she only has months to live. Her mother hasn’t found the courage for the conversation, and so Angie doesn’t know she’s dying. It’s not my place to tell her, and it’s not in my power to stop it. The only thing I can offer Angie is exactly what she’s offered me: friendship forged over obscure cartoon characters and Barbie’s funky fashion. And asking myself whether I’m doing a good job misses the point altogether, because friendship isn’t a task for me to complete—it’s a reality for me to embrace. Angie’s life will not be long, but it will still be lived. Right now, she’s gloriously, unquestioningly present.
I should be, too.
Jocelyn Streid, Trinity ’13, a former Robertson Scholar, is a Hart Fellow conducting pediatric palliative care research at a children’s cancer center in Kuching, Malaysia. This column is the ninth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the columnists a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.