I turned 60 this year and, together with friends and colleagues reaching the same milestone, have noticed that my approach to life is changing in profound ways. Beyond obsessing about our 401ks, feeling obsolete or ready to be put out to pasture, a few of us elders of the medicine clan at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) have begun to gather around the dream of what we might give back. After all, our health care system is a mess, and it’s mostly happened on our watch. We’re at a place in our lives when productivity and a bottom line mentality matter less and values mean much more. We want to develop a conversation about how we can be a blessing to this sick system.
We call ourselves the “Mandela Group,” after a prayer for the townships by South African President Nelson Mandela, which I paraphrase: “Please bless the elders because they have given so much to the tribe. Please bless the youth because they are our future. Please bless those in the middle because they are doing all the work.” The DMS elders, a group that included family physician Dennis McCullough, internist Phil Wade, and psychiatrist Charlie Boren, gathered in December at the Hood Museum of Art for wine, cheese, and conversation. We used the Hood’s art treasures and the docents’ expertise to get us started—to help us “notice” each other and begin to ask: What might we contribute to our medical school, our medical center, to the profession, and to ourselves?
Since then, we have been invited to join Dartmouth undergraduates in the Tucker Foundation’s lunchtime series, “What Matters to Me and Why,” and we’ve been back to the Hood to join fourth-year medical students on the brink of finding which hospitals they will be matched with. Together, we explored The Art of the Stripe, previously on exhibition at the Hood, and talked about the “stripes” that make up a physician’s life—those vertical and horizontal lines and times that we all experience. Professor of History Bruce Nelson will soon us to share his wisdom about social movements, and we have asked our nurse colleagues with a similar degree of wisdom and maturity to join us. We are blessed to have so many resources in this community!
We’re not sure where the group will lead us, but that evening in December—and our subsequent conversations—have been accomplishments in and of themselves. There always seems to be some mysterious harmony in the universe and, unbeknownst to us when we chose our name, Nelson Mandela was in the process of forming his own group of wise elders, including folks like former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and President Jimmy Carter to cogitate on some of the great issues facing us.
Our quest comes on the cusp of a larger U.S. societal milestone: the first Baby Boomers are signing up for Social Security. We belong to a generation that would like to be known for its dedication to “leaving the campground better than we found it.” We’re supposed to be in the stage of our lives that psychologist Erik Erikson called “generativity.” We are in the business of getting outside ourselves, finding our moral voices. My Harvard classmate, Al Gore, is a particular hero of mine. He lost the presidency but found his moral voice. It has become his second career to speak out about two of the defining issues of our time: the Iraq war and global warming.
Writing on what she calls, “Second Acts,” Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman said, “As a country, we are at the beginning of an enormous transition. Under the old compact, sixty-somethings were supposed to get out of the way and out of work. They were encouraged by financial incentives and prodded by discrimination. Now we are drawing blueprints for people who see themselves more as citizens than seniors.” In her column, Goodman quotes Marc Freedman, the head of Civic Ventures, a think tank that encourages Boomers to reinvent themselves: “Gore found himself by losing himself—literally losing—and becoming liberated from ambition, the idea that there’s a particular ladder you have to scurry up and if you don’t make it to the top, it’s all over. Essentially, he found a different ladder.”
That’s what we want our Mandela group to do. We hope we’ll succeed, be helpful, and have some fun. Most of all, we hope we can make a difference.
There is a hunger among faculty of our age group to be heard and to do something meaningful and something special about the crucible that is a career in medicine. Maybe as elders of this particular tribe, we can work together to leave the campground a little better than we found it.
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Last Updated: 12/17/08