Acknowledging our own privilege

We did a redesign of the Medical Post, the magazine for doctors I edit at the beginning of last year. Now, we think of each year of the magazine as a “season” just like TV shows and let the style and flavor shift a bit from year to year. This year, I told readers I was going to write editorials that were more personal—but still relate hopefully to the experience of Canadian doctors. The reception to these editorials has been good.

Here’s two from this year: 

Acknowledging our own privilege

Diversity continues to be an important concern in medicine. While some groups have become more visible, questions remain about how well medical leadership reflects the diversity of the profession. Are things really better than they used to be?

This made me think about something my mother asked me when I was in Victoria in April for a visit. She asked whether I thought of myself as part of the first generation of gay people who grew up with significantly less prejudice than generations before me.

I grew up in B.C. in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was not free of prejudice. There was definitely nothing cool about how gay people were perceived in the high school I attended; at least it didn’t feel that way to a closeted, socially awkward, gangly gay kid, namely me. Also, I was a young man interested in sex during that period between the outbreak of AIDS and before effective antiretrovirals. You know, that period when many gay men were finding out they had AIDS and dying horribly shortly after.

Did those things affect me? For sure. How much? I can’t say. All that was long ago but a few things have prompted me to re-think my own privilege recently.

One, Pete Buttigieg, the gay U.S. politician from South Bend, Indiana, and a contender for the Democratic Party nomination in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, is often referred to as “just another white guy” by some progressives concerned about diversity. (Ultimately, I realized Buttigieg is of a younger generation than me.)

Two, I attended a science fiction writers conference in Ottawa last fall. These days many attendees at sci-fi cons are very inclusive of people who identify as non-binary or gender binary. On the second floor of the hotel, event organizers had temporarily relabeled all the washrooms as all-gender facilities. Because it came up at the conference, I had to get used to thinking of myself as a “cis gay male” (cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches their birth sex).

As for the connection to the physician experience, well, all of our organizations are trying to become more diverse. I’m not going to try and make any sweeping statements about others’ privilege. We all have to tell our own stories. But what I would suggest is that we not get defensive when our privilege is pointed out. We should acknowledge that some luck and some privilege, as well as a lot of hard work, play a role in a successful career. I can admit myself that, of course, as a tall white male, independent of sexual orientation, I have had privileges that others haven’t.

To make the leadership of medical organizations reflect Canada we all need to reflect on our own privilege—and think widely of what diversity really means.


The bitter-sweet ‘pain’ of aging

I’ve been taking walks with my dad along the grey pebble beaches around Victoria when I’m out in British Columbia. He’s in his mid-80s now and is physically fine but his short-term memory can be spotty. I asked him once as we strolled how he recalled that decline happening.

“When I was about 40 I thought of my mind like a steel trap—it just went. . .” he said.

My dad immigrated to Canada in 1953, by himself, from Scotland, without a high school degree, yet he was able to finish high school, get an undergraduate degree and become a lawyer within a decade of arriving. Presumably the “steel trap” worked pretty well.

He said that by some time in his 50s he realized that his brain was slowing down, but it was all so incredibly gradual.

As our bodies and minds oh-so-slowly decline in the second half of our lives there is, I think, one main thing to watch for: not seeing our own decline as bigger than it is. It is easy to think of the “good old days” as brighter and sunnier and start mumbling about how the world is going to pot. We sometimes feel the world is getting darker as we age—because for us, it is. (I think men need to particularly watch for this as we age—the phrase “grumpy old man” hasn’t stuck around for no reason.)

But there is a bright side to aging. I read once that when you survey people about how happy they are, you find happiness levels rise as we age (until extreme old age). That makes sense. By the time you’re in your 50s you no longer think, “Maybe I should stop being a doctor and move to Hollywood and try to become a famous actor.” Aware that time is limited, we want to only spend it on things that bring us satisfaction.


Final bits…

Lastly this is a small personal section from the end of the first editorial I wrote at the at the beginning of the “season” of the magazine:

On a personal note, I’m feeling a lot more optimistic for a number of reasons. One, I finished a novel I was writing in my spare time. It took several years and was hard—I think I like being a magazine editor better. Two, I started antidepressants again a year ago. I’d tried them once before during a turbulent period in my life without effect but I’m happy with my personal relations these days as well, and I do feel that the meds are giving me more “ease” now.

You doctors are a great audience. Canadian physicians are amazing people and you’re going to be able to solve the problems you face. Here’s to Season Two!


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