Purpose and Small Plans: Service and a Sense of Urgency and What You Miss While You Are Busy Building New Lab Space

Purpose and Small Plans:
Service and a Sense of Urgency and What You Miss While You Are Busy Building
New Lab Space

By

Leonard Zwelling

         In a moving op-ed piece on May 29 in the NY Times, David Brooks discussed the
responses he received after asking readers to write him about the purpose of
their lives.

         He had expected grandiosity. He received instead wisdom. In
the most important quote from his article a reader, Kim Spencer, wrote:

“I used to be one of the solid ones
— one of the people whose purpose was clearly defined and understood. My
purpose was seeing patients and ‘saving lives.’ I have melted into the
in-between spaces, though. Now my purpose is simply to be the person … who
can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis. I can
give it to you today and again in a few days. … I can edit your letter. … I
can listen to you complain about your co-worker. … I can look you in the eye and
give you a few dollars in the parking lot. I am not upset if you cry. I am no
longer drowning, so I can help keep you afloat with a little boost. Not all of
the time, but every once in a while, until you find other people to help or a
different way to swim. It is no skin off my back; it is easy for me.”

I cannot describe retirement any
better.

Forty years ago, I too cared for
patients and that was my purpose. Thirty years ago my purpose was the
performance of well-controlled scientific experiments under the delusion that
my life could be as controlled as the research. Twenty years ago I began to
wander off the reservation a bit as a research administrator. I defined the
purpose of the office I led then as “service with a sense of urgency.” I still
believe in that mission statement. For the past ten years my north star of
purpose has been less fixed. It has been drifting from Houston, to Washington,
to Smithville and Bastrop, back to the south campus, out to Montrose and now in
my study at home “chicken scratching for my immortality”  (Joni Mitchell, Hejira, 1976). Through it all, my family has been there for me and
I have tried to be there for them, but this purpose that Brooks is illuminating
is the one beyond the walls of your home.

At each stop, I surely had a
personal agenda with a definite purpose for myself that was usually extremely
egocentric. Once I became an administrator, that strategy of purpose would not
work. If I was not for my faculty colleagues, I was for no one, including
myself. Thus, the “service with a sense of urgency.” I am back there. Everyday
I try to do something for someone, but I also do what my father-in-law, the
late, great pathologist Jerome I. Kleinerman, MD taught me years ago, and “let
the meeting come to me.” One day it may be writing a letter or email in
response to an article in the Houston Chronicle.
The next could be an op-ed piece or blog about the latest outrage perpetrated
on the innocent by our national politicians or local academic leaders. I could
be trying to find an MD Anderson doctor for someone or just listening to some
horror story of poor cancer care elsewhere.

All I need to do is be, but be
present as well. It is not enough to breathe. One must also listen to the breath
of the environment around oneself and make small incremental improvements in
that environment for the purpose of helping others. That’s it. That’s my
purpose.

And,
as Ms. Spencer notes, “it is easy for me.”

For
you, too.

I
must end with one of the truly memorable quotes of recent years attributed to
John Lennon, but which probably dates back to 1957 (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/05/06/other-plans/):

“Life
is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”

Regardless
who said it, it is still true. But we can all try harder until it gets easier.

You
do not need to have a building named after you to make the world a better
place. Just like institutions, buildings don’t love you back anyway.

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