This I Believe: Nothing Is Wasted

by Lorien E. Menhennett

As a former journalist, I would like to think that I know good journalism when I see it. Or hear it. And NPR (National Public Radio) is indeed that. Aside from the “hard” news, I also enjoy the feature stories and radio “essays” that NPR broadcasts. One of my favorite segments along these lines is called “This I Believe.” Based on a 1950s radio series hosted by Edward R. Murrow, “This I Believe” is not only a radio segment/podcast, but an international organization dedicated to providing people a venue for expressing their core beliefs and values. There is a Web site dedicated to the project, thisibelieve.org, which has archived 100,000 essays from people around the world. Discerning out what you believe, and articulating it, is no easy task. So having this collection of human values is indeed a treasure. Are you going to agree with every essay? Of course not. Many of the essays are on extremely controversial topics, such as immigration, abortion, and race (to name just a few). But the fact that these essays are there, collected, available for people to explore, is amazing to me.

I have never contributed an essay to this Web site. However, I realized this afternoon, as I was talking on the phone with a friend, what I would write about. I wouldn’t tackle a hot-button issue. The belief I would want to share is more general in nature. Possibly less contentious, but who knows. So here we go …

This I believe: Nothing is wasted.

I have believed this for some time, have shared this thought with family and friends. But now more than ever do I cling to this belief.

First, let me say that this belief statement is not in any way intended to have a religious connotation, and it is not the same as saying “everything happens for a reason.” I am not a religious person at all. And I think when you say that everything happens for a reason, that could be construed as either implying a higher power of some sort (which is not part of my belief system), or rejecting responsibility for your own actions (i.e., I did something bad, but since everything happens for a reason, it’s OK).

What I do mean by this belief statement is that if we so choose (and here I put an emphasis on an active “choosing”), we can learn from, and be changed by, by our experiences. Let me explain. It’s easy enough to learn from positive experiences. If you have a supportive teacher, you are more likely to learn a subject, for example. But those negative, nasty, painful experiences – we tend to want to forget about those. I’m not saying I am glad bad things have happened to me (and quite a few have transpired the last year and a half). What I am saying is that I truly believe that I am a better person for them. Or at the least, that I will be some day. I believe, for example, that having gone through a divorce will make me a more empathetic physician. During my divorce, I also learned that I had to compartmentalize things (i.e., my grief) – not forever, but until I had a break – in order to get done what needed to get done (i.e., my school work). Those are both valuable skills, when executed and exercised appropriately.

OK, so positive experiences, duh, those teach us positive things. Negative experiences, while negative, can make us stronger people. Character-building, if you will. But what about the experiences that seem more neutral? That perhaps have taken you in a different direction (neither positive nor negative) than the one in which you are now traveling? Those are not wasted either, in my opinion.

Let me give another example to illustrate my point. My undergraduate education, originally, is in journalism. If I had stayed in journalism, that education would clearly have been a positive influence in my life, and contributed greatly to my future career. But now I am going into medicine. Some people might look at that and think, “What a waste! I wish I had just done medicine when I was younger, instead of wasting my time with this unrelated and useless education and career.”

That, I believe, is completely the wrong way of looking at the situation. Am I going to be working as a journalist in the future? No (although I plan to continue writing). However, there are so, so many things I learned, skills I accumulated, during that time that will contribute to my becoming a better physician and researcher.

The writing skills set is obvious. As a scientist, you have to write scientific papers. I definitely know how to communicate my ideas in writing, and have shown that I can translate those written communication skills into the science arena. So there’s one benefit. Another is interviewing skills. As a journalist, you live and die by your interviewing skills. If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right (or sometimes any!) answers, and hence can’t write your story. I know how to develop and prepare questions, as well as shoot them off the cuff; how to develop rapport with people so that they feel comfortable answering even difficult and personal queries (which you obviously do quite frequently as a physician).

In addition, as a journalist I cultivated an intense curiosity about the world around me. I was a curious child, and as a journalist I was encouraged to hone that. To ask, not close-ended (“yes” / “no”) questions about the world, but open-ended questions, such as “why”?

red barnA perfect example: I was driving through the Wisconsin countryside during a camping trip this May, and my friend and I kept passing old barns. Old red barns. It dawned on me that nearly all the barns I’d ever seen – with few exceptions – had been red. I’d seen a few weathered, natural-wood ones, sure. But if a barn has a color, it’s always red. This prompted one of those “why” moments. It turns out, according to a Farmer’s Almanac blog post, that hundreds of years ago, farmers had to prepare their own sealants (this was before commercial varnishes or paints were available) to protect their barns from the natural elements. They apparently used linseed oil, which is an orange-colored oil. To this oil, the Farmer’s Almanac blog post reports, farmers often added other things such as milk and lime, as well as ferrous oxide (rust). The rust supposedly killed fungi and moss that would otherwise have grown on the barns. These days, there are obviously commercial paints available, but red prevailed as the traditional color.

The thing about asking questions, though, is that you need to know how to find the answer. These days, you can always Google your question. And you might – I say might – come up with a reliable answer. But you also need to know where else to look (I mean other than Wikipedia), as well as which types of sources are reliable ones (again, other than Wikipedia). Those are skills I also learned as a journalist.

So my journalism education, as preparation for eventually becoming a physician-scientist, was definitely not a waste. I can easily see that. Some of the more painful things that have happened recently, I am only beginning to understand their meaning to me. It will take time. Years, perhaps, to fully understand it. But I hold onto this belief, that nothing is wasted, because I have seen it borne out in my life, and in the lives of others. It is how I make sense of the constant chaos. And I believe that is what beliefs are meant to do.

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