I’m sitting alone at a gate at the Detroit airport as I write this, on the way to Shanghai for an educational adventure. I’ve been flying internationally since before I could remember flying at all. My first flight was at the tender age of 3 months, and I started flying alone overseas (shepherded by flight attendants as an unaccompanied minor) around the age of 5 or 6. This raises a few eyebrows when told today, but you have to take into account that it was a different era. Pan Am still ruled the skies; pilots and flight attendants lead glamorous lives, and the Internet had not yet corralled the wild unknown romance of the far-flung corners of the Earth into the tidy little package that we know today. As a 6-year-old child, life was already a grand adventure. To travel alone as a 6-year-old child made that adventure the stuff of legend.
Traveling alone entailed spending long hours in transit in strange airports in the loose custody of the airline staff. In short, you learned to amuse yourself. Remove smartphones, laptops, iPads, and video games from the equation (this was the 1980s), and all you had left was the workings of your own mind. Books and puzzles took up precious room in your backpack, and they were only good for an hour or two of entertainment anyway. So, what to do?
I had two favorite games. The first was to pick someone whom I could observe waiting at the gate or in the lounge - the more interesting-looking, the better. This lucky individual would then become the unwitting protagonist of his or her own choose-your-own adventure novel. I’d construct a complete dossier on this character, including past history, current mission, and future prospects, as well as favorite ice cream flavor. I’d pore over every detail of his or her physiognomy, looking for clues a la Sherlock Holmes as to the true nature of this person’s travel that day. Some mild-mannered accountant on holiday had no idea that he was, in reality, a secret agent smuggling state secrets in order to stop a fiendish plot. (I also had by this time discovered James Bond movies.)
The second game involved a far worse fate for the hapless traveler, for I would mentally dress them in various period costumes and crack myself up. The best and most hilarious variant was imagining very stuffy, disagreeable businessmen parading around in 17th-century hoop skirts. This technique works well with public speaking as well as improving your confidence around people who make you nervous; go on, dress people in hoop skirts in your head and watch your fears melt away.
Traveling alone as a child not only fuels your imagination, creativity, and ability to amuse yourself; it impresses upon you that you don’t just have one identity. You realize that you don’t just create characters of your fellow travelers; you yourself are a character in this giant adventure called life. Someone else could be watching you and weaving an alternate reality for you. How many times have you looked out the window during takeoff and literally felt like you were leaving your cares or your old life behind for a while? How many times have you had a sense of peace wash over you as the plane leveled off at cruising altitude and the captain turned off the seat belt sign? Each sip of the Coca-Cola from the beverage trolley, despite the giant ice cubes, is a dose of a magical elixir that causes you to forget your past as you focus on the future, suspended in a delicious sort of limbo.
When you land, you really are someone different. You may have left Pittsburgh as a physician still thinking about work left to do, patients on your mind and ongoing problems. You will arrive at your destination, wherever it may be, in a completely different mode. Suddenly, you are just a parent, a spouse, a friend, or just as an anonymous human being on vacation: a volunteer on a mission trip focused completely on the patients and your work at hand or perhaps, as a student again. Those enchanted hours in the air in between roles make all the difference.
What can we learn from this? We are all characters in our own lives: changeable, malleable and in a constant state of evolution. Travel serves to reinforce that we can transform ourselves at will into someone else who thinks in a different way and focuses on new things.
Too often as physicians we become typecast in our well-worn roles to the point where we let that role define us. If we suddenly lose that role — if we fall sick, retire, change careers, or take time off — we may fear more than a loss of career or income. We may fear the loss of the only identity we’ve come to know - the one reliable constant despite personal storms and career ebbs and flows. There’s always work. Our patients will always need us. We barely realize the extent to which work defines our existence and our sense of self. The prospect of change is frightening, and the idea of no longer having that one constant that defines us can bring on a terrifying sense of emptiness and lead some to question their self-worth.
Fear not. Every time you get on a plane to a conference or a vacation or anywhere at all, you are actively transforming in the air from workaday physician to your next role, and the space in between is a beautiful adventure. The question is not: Why must my role change someday? Rather, it is: Where do I want to go, and who will I want to be when I get there?
Plan your trips well, and make your destinations as beautiful and fun as you can. Just realize that someone may have cast you, real-time, in a spy novel, and hope you’re not wearing a hoop skirt.