Ophthalmologists, as a specialty, consider themselves to be detail-oriented perfectionists. We’re proud of that. We’re concerned with mastering our craft through meticulous repetition. The oft-asked questions are: How many cataracts have you done? How many injections? How many tube shunts? etc. It starts with residency interviews, and then continues through our training years and in our quest for a job. Numbers frequently mean money, but they also represent your level of skill, and the phrase “practice makes perfect” should have been written about ophthalmologists. Once mastered, the ability to reproduce these perfect results time after time, eye after eye, is the hallmark of a skilled surgeon. As I used to say to my residents when teaching cataract surgery: “Perfect rice every time.” (OK, I had to stop saying that since no one had a clue that I was comparing their surgery to an instant-rice commercial from the ‘60s.) Anyway, here we are as a profession, still demanding perfect rice.
By now you likely have no idea where I’m going with this, so I’ll tell you: Golf. That game where you whack at a little ball and almost always underperform your own expectations. The opposite of perfect rice every time, golf is a seemingly imperfectible game, which, on the face of it, makes it ill-suited for ophthalmologists. Also, golf is a major time commitment. As the old joke goes, where else would you find a doctor on Wednesday except at the golf course? So, when colleagues went out to play golf, I saw it as an entire day of the week devoted to imperfection.
For the reasons stated above, as well as a disinclination to embarrass myself in public, I’ve resisted learning how to play the game. Despite my friends’ and colleagues’ recent suggestions that I now take it up, I’m still not sure it’s a good avocation for me. What purpose will it serve, other than killing time? Is it exercise? Not really. Is it relaxing? Maybe—but, then again, I’m pretty type A. Is it a good reason to get outdoors? Probably, but I’ve also got chores galore waiting for me in my yard. My biggest question is: Can I get really good at it? Because that’s what being an ophthalmologist is all about.
Maybe, however, the fact that golf eludes perfection is precisely why I should play it. In my second act—Mark 2.0—I’m working on being less intense, less unforgiving of myself and others, and more accepting of imperfection. Maybe all of life’s not about perfect rice.
Most importantly though, I’m trying to be present. A few years ago, I was supervising the resident clinic. It was the usual madhouse, but the chief resident was overseeing the chaos with his usual good nature and preternatural calm. I admired that and asked him how he did it. Aside from his having good genes, he referred me to Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now,” with which many of you are no doubt familiar. The book was an amazing read and helped me to begin to understand the value of being “in the moment,” which is now almost a cliché admonition for surviving modern life. Enlightening? Yes … but oh-so-difficult to achieve.
There are many ways to get there, to be present in the moment, and one size doesn’t fit all. For some, its meditation. Others choose yoga. For others, perhaps, it could be golf. Yes, golf. As I contemplate what truly useful reason I might have to take up the game, it occurs to me that you can’t play golf without being there, in the moment. And while I would be hard pressed to ascribe a higher calling to the game, it could provide the opportunity to focus on the present—and perhaps to be taken down a peg or two and be left without artifice or pretense. No perfect rice on a golf course. It might be just what the doctor ordered ... just not on Wednesdays.