Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What life asks of us

As stressful as life can be, we usually have a good handle on what we're supposed to do. I know I have to pick up my dry-cleaning or I won't have anything to wear for Shabbos. I know I have to use a pot holder or I'll seriously burn myself. Some decisions may be nagging, but ultimately don't invoke much responsibility because their consequences are not significantly influential for our future. Should I order the pasta or the fish? (The pasta- I don't like fish.)

And then there are times where life asks more of us, times where our impotence to really control our destiny becomes painfully obvious. During January/February, I was applying for externship positions for next year. I sent out five applications and was called in for three interviews. Awesome.

The first interview was on a Wednesday with my last choice hospital site (my fall-back). I considered it a practice interview. At the end of the interview with the training director, she offered me a spot for next year and asked me to let her know my decision within a week. My other two interviews were the following Tuesday. I told each interviewer about my offer and the pressure for a decision and asked them if they could let me know, in a non-binding way, where I stand. They understood my predicament and explained their predicament, which was basically that they couldn't really tell me because they weren't finished interviewing and would contact me the following week. One advised me to go ahead and "make [my] decisions."

Tough situation, right? It was literally "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." So what do I do? Take the ho-hum sure thing and feel I didn't get the exciting, prestigious placement or hold out hope but risk ending up with nothing for next year? What would you do? This was one situation where I wished I could just know one relevant piece of information from the future. That would ease my decision and give me the serenity of certainty.

So many times we ask life for its meaning, what it expects of us. Viktor Frankl, in his seminal work, Man's Search for Meaning (an explication of his experiences during the Holocaust and how they contributed to his theories of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, which posit that our greatest drive is not towards pleasure (as per Freud) or power (as per Adler and Nietzsche), but toward meaning- buy and read this book!) informs that it's the other way around.

"Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible... [In the concentration camps] we needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual"
-Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
The responsibility is upon us to discover, define, and pursue our meaning. So, my friends, where does this leave us? Well, I'll tell you what I did.

I called the director of the first site on Wednesday and blubbered a request for more time to decide. I tried to frame it in a way that didn't convey that "I don't really want to go here, but you may be my only hope." It's like this- T. pointed out that people tend to respond more positively to requests based on a principle than just a סתם request because "I want/need it." I told her that I try to make my decisions with knowledge of all my options, that if I didn't want to go there, I would tell her, but I wanted to find the placement I would gain most from and could contribute most to. She very tactfully did not point out to me how full of it I was and graciously offered me a couple more days to decide, as they expected to fill all positions by Friday. She said she'd call me when they'd all been filled (not, of course, when there was one spot left I could still accept). That bought me more time, but not enough.

I let Friday come and go (along with the phone call that all positions had been filled) and hoped for the best the next week. Monday I received a call from one of the other two places, rejecting me. I should have seen it coming. The director told me that it wasn't becasue of any lack of qualification, but that they generally seek externs with more experience. As such, they usually interview applicants for 4th year externship poistions, a preference the director informed me of during the interview. I was applying for 3rd year externship. They called me in for an interview because they were impressed with my CV and wanted to see what I 'm about. In the end, they went with 4th years across the board. I should have put the pieces together earlier. 20/20 hindsight, right?

Later that day, I got a call from my last hope. The director asked if I'd accepted the other offer I told her about at the interview. I responded cooly and calmly that I hadn't and in fact preferred a placement at her site (READ: I reallyreallyreallyreallyreally want you to take me because I have nowhere else to go). She said she'd let me know their decision on Wednesday. On Wednesay, I got the good news. I'm really excited to extern next year on two MICA wards with ex-convicts and oodles of psychopathology. In addition to the experience, this institution's name on my CV will help take me places in the future.

Does this mean I made the right decision? Not necessarily. As much as I got the outcome I'd desired at the time, I still have no way of knowing what the consequences of my decision may ultimately be.

When I called the director to accept her offer, she told me that they were very impressed with me when we met (on Tuesday the week before), but that they had to finish all the other interviews [as a formality]. So it turns out that at the very time I was troubled by uncertainty and the decision required, the conclusion was already there (she could have saved me a lot of stress had she told me then!). Of course, I could have chosen the fall back.

I'm curious to hear your about your throughts and experiences.

Update 12/28/08:
At the end of the following year's application process, I was in a similar bind. I had an offer from one place I thought I'd have been very happy with, but still had another interview, with another place I also thought I'd be happy with. At the end of the interview, I frankly told the interviewer my dilemma and empathized with her position (having come to understand it from last year's process). This time around, she offered me a position on the spot! She didn't make me accept right away, but I did ultimately accept the position and am very happy there.

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