Want Respect? Earn It

I was 28-years-old when I graduated from optometry school and finally gained that long sought after title of “doctor.” No more “scut work” for me, I thought. “Let respect flow like a river, and money like a mighty stream” was my motto.

Oh, if only it had been that simple. We moved to Nashville where I started a residency in ocular disease at a large ophthalmology clinic and referral center near Vanderbilt. One of the first patients that I saw in the clinic there stared at me in disbelief when I walked into the room and declared, “And what high school did you just graduate from?” She wasn’t smiling when she said it.

But that was the least of my problems. The entire staff of the clinic, from the front desk receptionist to the lead technician, had misgivings about turning this skinny, baby-faced greenhorn in the white jacket loose on their patients. Most of them were women who had never graduated from college, much less something as difficult and arduous as professional school. How dare they!

It turns out that the previous resident there had been very “patient-phobic” and had spent inordinate amounts of time in her office writing case reports and “doing research” which was just fine with them. But I was eager to jump into the fray and get my hands dirty, which meant more work for them. They conspired to make sure that I had as few patients as possible and as a group went to my residency mentor and told him that they didn’t think I was experienced or mature enough to take care of patients independently.

And they had a point. I really wasn’t (especially the difficult, tertiary care patients who comprised the bulk of the patient load). But that was the whole point of a residency, to gain that sort of experience, and my residency preceptor told them that and reassured them that he would be close by to lend a hand if I needed it.

When I found out about that meeting which had taken place behind my back, I was pretty steamed. But after venting to my preceptor about how mere staff ought to show a little more respect to someone who had just received his first batch of checks from the bank with the “Dr.” printed prominently before his name, he said something that has been lodged in my mind ever since:

“Want respect? Earn it.”

Eventually, after demonstrating to the clinic staff that I could get it done in the trenches, I did earn their respect. I was invited to stay at the end of my year of training, and worked there for nearly two more years. Those same staff members who had dismissed me at first eventually looked to me as their “go-to” guy when things got rough. But it wasn’t they who had changed so much. It was me.

I’ve tried to take that lesson learned during my first year of residency and carry it with me throughout my career. It came in handy when I moved to Huntsville and started with my current employer and was shown my office and clinic area on the first day; they were both empty.

Those words of advice from my residency mentor rang in my ears as I built my present clinic from scratch, taught students, wrote and published articles and lectured at meetings (often for little or no pay) in order to climb the ladder toward “tenure.”

I repeated the words to my students and reminded them that if they didn’t take good care of their patients or demonstrate to their colleagues and other professionals that they knew what they’re doing, then the initials behind their name would stand for nothing and do them little good.

And I tried to remind them–and show them–that they must find some meaning in their work, especially since that’s what they would be doing for the majority of their lives. The words of The Preacher:

“Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”

–Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

I think The Preacher had a hard time seeing any sort of eternal significance to the work performed on earth, and frankly, most days, so do I. But what else is there to do but labor on?

But maybe, just maybe, the “here and now” and eternity are not as far apart as we might think at first glance. One of my favorite reflections on work comes in, of all places, a Jim Carrey movie. In Bruce Almighty, Carrey’s character Bruce Nolan finally sheds his “scut work” job and gets that long-coveted TV anchor position and even a chance to “play God” and run the universe. But at the outset, God, wearing a janitor’s uniform and in the form of Morgan Freeman, reminds Bruce that eventually he’ll have to come back and help “clean this floor.”

When Bruce finds out that being the Big Kahuna is not all that he thought it was cracked up to be, he finds himself back in the empty warehouse, with broom in hand and a look of peace and sublime satisfaction on his face, sweeping in synch with his Creator. After all his grand visions, Bruce discovers that there is no “scut work,” that any task performed for and with God that adds order to and helps stem the chaos of a degenerating (or is it regenerating?) creation can be meaningful and fulfilling.

I think about that scene sometimes as I drive to work and try to summon up the courage and strength to get in there and do it again. I think about the words of my residency mentor: Want respect? Earn it.

And I pray: Lord, make me of some use to you today. Amen.

  1. Mike the Eyeguy

    So now the question becomes: Is there some way I can condense this 3-part series into 680 words or less for my next Huntsville Times community column and have it ready by my deadline of next Thursday?

    We shall see.

  2. mmlace

    Dr. Eyeguy, that would be an EXCELLENT piece for your column…IMHO, of course!

    The Amos verse you’d re-worked is one of my favorite Bible verses, I just love that imagery.

    Ecclesiastes is a good book. I never really studied it in-depth until the summer after my freshman year of college. Lots of wisdom.

    The movie Bruce Almighty is one of my favorites. Despite the fact that was accurately rated PG-13, it had some excellent messages. I remember hearing alot of people say that it was going to be “sacrilegious” but I love how in the storyline, God taught Bruce alot about Himself. You point out one of the lessons that I had forgotten, about there not being any work “beneath you”.

    Another of my favorite scenes from that movie was when Bruce (thinking of his girlfriend) finally asks God, “So how do you make someone love you without affecting free will???”

    God’s response? “Welcome to my world.”

    Dr Eyeguy, I do hope you’re able to re-work this post into your next column! 🙂

  3. mmlace

    Getting all three of them into one column might be quite a task, though…

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    A Herculean one.

  5. Stoogelover

    Good stuff. My uncle / mentor / best friend told me early in life I had to earn respect. In my present profession (which rates right up there with used car salesmen) we’ve worked hard to earn the respect of the people of this valley, but it’s the right thing to do and the effort is paying off with a reputation second to none in this area and in this business.

  6. Mike the Eyeguy

    I think you should open up a satellite office in North Alabama. We could use your kind of business ethics around here.

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