essay: Formative Influences

Why One’s Life Takes a Particular Path                                                9.5.2010

So here I am at sixty:  a (so far) healthy – though overweight – competent GP; twice married with three independent adult children aged around thirty, and enjoying a good relationship with my partner Rochi; a has-been environment and anti-nuclear activist with green/left values; a moderately idealistic type whose career shows little evidence of high achievement, but lots of paths attempted; and generally happy with my lot, though the question of how best to spend my remaining years often teases me.  I do not have conventional religion and probably am closer to atheism than any creed, except perhaps the idea of Gaia, the biosphere as a living entity, and perhaps the eastern mystical concept of a sea of common consciousness – but Hegel’s sad dictum that each of us is alone is somewhere there too.  I tend to make decisions of all sizes quickly and intuitively, relying more on heart than head.  I have travelled quite widely and still enjoy travel holidays.  I have self-published an environmental history, and written two novels and a biography of my father –all unpublished.  I have in recent years attempted painting, and may continue with this, though I feel frustrated that such skills don’t develop more quickly.  I once built my own large mud-brick home, and enjoy making things – love having a project.  I now work as a GP in the well-heeled milieu of Hampton / Sandringham, also do regular sessions among the much poorer aboriginal community in Melbourne’s west, and an isolated five week stint in the Northern Territory each year.  I’ve worked as a public hospital medical director, and over many years in both rural and urban general practice.  I see Eve, Tate and Lec regularly, and I am very proud of them.  I still regret the failure of my first marriage – how that happened is something I have long pondered.  I am clearly a generalist, and at times have vague regrets about not having had a grand passion for a career.  I have a small number of good friends whom I don’t give enough time to – probably because of my need to always have a project on-the-go.  I am quite comfortable financially, provided I keep working, to an extent because we are not big spenders. I regularly donate to a number of charities and green/left causes; that, my occasionally active membership of the Greens, and the sustainable features of our nice little home are what remains of my former activism.  I have quite a strong sense of fairness, and can mostly keep my cool in an argument, unless overtired or feeling that I am the subject of unfair attack – in which instance the old dictum that ‘attack is the best method of defence’ may hold sway – I think I got that one from Dad (the old soldier/politician) too.  I really enjoy being in a loving relationship (and having a nice dog, Lucy) much more than being alone, although by this stage of my life I think I could live alone if I had to.  The question of how I came to be who I am, and do what I do – the influences that shaped me – is intriguing to me, of course.  It may be of little interest to anyone else, or there may be some generalities from which others can derive interest vis-à-vis their own lives.

Childhood influences are of course formative.  I can thank my parents for a largely happy, secure (and completely non-religious) childhood, for having felt loved and valued.  Whatever can be said about their own very traditional relationship, it gave me a belief that marriage was forever.  Only in my later teens did things begin to come unstuck as my brother Peter’s health and behaviour deteriorated, and the family struggled to cope with the considerable trauma involved.  His death at seventeen was a family tragedy that I still think about at odd times – sometimes even thought I saw him in the street – though this occurs very rarely nowadays.  His death, the ever-presence of ‘the reaper’ in a medical career, and my own diagnosis of melanoma at age thirty, contributed to a feeling that none of life should be wasted; one never knows what fate has in store.  The ‘end’ could not ‘justify the means’ if I locked myself away studying even longer in pursuit of a brilliant career and then died early from secondary melanoma, or whatever.

My father Sir John Muir Anderson – “Bill” to his friends and loving wife – was perhaps the single most important influence – a very strong male role model, in psych-speak.  He was a tough, decisive personality – the right man for his time and the Liberal Party- his early career forged in the crucible of World War II.  Successful in melding business and politics, he made a significant contribution to public life, and seemed much admired by his contemporaries, trusted for his probity, socially adept and with a good many friends.  A powerful orator most at home in the (at times literally) rough and tumble of street politics, he was also kind, generous and compassionate, with a strongly developed sense of fairness in some ways at odds with his Liberal Party career.  He had a sensitive side that he somewhat repressed – not surprising given the horrors of his wartime experience, and traditional ideas about manliness.  His background and inclination was non-academic, and without much obvious knowledge of modern child psychology – maybe this was in part why Peter’s illness proved such a difficult challenge for him, and for my mother, whose background and beliefs mirrored his.  Although he moved in circles of conservative power and wealth, he articulated a surprising contradiction: he could say that financial wealth was the measure of  “a man’s” success in life, but could also be dismissive of those who spent their lives just ‘building their pile’.  I suspect that my early ability to work for success at school owes much to a need to measure up to him – though he certainly never demanded anything of the kind – he didn’t have to; he just did what he did.  I’m uncertain about the effects of birth order: perhaps being a first child makes you closer to and more influenced by your parents – in my case the dominant parent and role model.

Given Dad’s strong personality, it’s not so surprising that I was attracted to values of the other side of politics, and we had some fierce arguments before mutual affection probably helped us to agree to differ.  I think that time spent in a PNG village in my early university years was a bigger factor; it became blindingly, instantly obvious that life in white Australia – especially in bayside Melbourne – was very privileged when compared with the struggles of the great majority of people on the planet.   I think that youthful idealism drew me to a medical career, along with dad’s example of public service, and of course unqualified support from parents who had traditional respect for doctors.  At school I had ‘peaked early’ – school dux at sixteen and school captain at seventeen, persuaded to return to school as I was ‘too young to attend university’ – and I was quite likely flattered by the offer of the captaincy.  Tending to shyness, I found that ‘high exposure’ year to some extent a strain, and may well have reacted by becoming less achievement-oriented.  Success in medical training was measured not just by exam results but by climbing the specialist career ladder.  In an unrelated thought about schooldays, I consider that an all-boys private school is not the best preparation for serious relationships with the opposite sex, no matter what else (?) might be good about it.  Certainly my knowledge and experience of girls by the time I left school was at best peripheral, not the greatest of beginnings to the slow, sputtering search for a life partner.

Travel adventures played a big part in moving to a generalist career path – the habit of adventure had been established as soon as the confines of school evaporated.  Martin Haskett and I had hitched rides to northwest WA in the long vac after first year medicine, and worked as deckhands on a harbour dredge at Port Hedland.  Then I headed further north to the Kimberley alone, on to Darwin and then hitched home down through the Centre.  Life away from studies was pretty damn good.  So despite further long vac adventures, after four years of intense medical studies Martin and I decided to take a year off – making money labouring on a Melbourne pipeline project before heading for the UK.  A term at Guys Hospital was required by our medical school – electives were uncommon in those days – and after that we split up; off on our little Jap motorbikes into different sunsets. Martin stayed a few months more in England; I lived for six weeks in Paris and then travelled around southern Europe until we met up again in Munich during the ill-fated 1972 Olympics.  Then it was up through Scandinavia and down through Eastern Europe and Greece before a long, exciting ride across Asia to the south of India and home.  By then I knew that I wasn’t going to spend another several years locked away in hospitals and specialist studies.  Life was too rich for that, so the idea of becoming a gall-bladder surgeon was almost anathema to me, maternal fantasies notwithstanding.  I think it’s fair to say that the size of this decision and its opportunity cost were not as clear to me then as they are now; and the self-confidence engendered by a big successful youthful adventure almost certainly reinforced a tendency to make big decisions quickly and intuitively.  “I can do this, I’m as good as the next man” may not be the best basis for every big decision.  However given other influences towards generalism – being a bit of a butterfly – it’s probably unlikely that specialism would have been a better fit to my personality by that stage; and generalism is a rich tapestry.  On the other hand, I suspect that other wistful butterflies at times hanker after the satisfaction of being really good at one particular thing, and today’s world is  a specialist’s world – at least from the point-of-view of employment and remuneration.  Current attempts to make general medical practice a specialty (how big an oxymoron is that??) testify to the truth of that observation.  In my case a possible corollary of being a generalist, more interested in the big picture than important details, has been the tendency to overstuff my agenda – not very compatible with a moderate tendency to migraine; more about overfull agendas when I try an essay on the low points of my life.

My particular interest in forests and the environment came from lots of hiking and camping in young adult years.  A seminal event was a hike with friends over Mt Feathertop and down into the valley of the west branch of the Kiewa River.  To this day I remember emerging with sudden shock from beautiful old forests into a shattered, rubbished, clearfelled wasteland on both sides of the river as far as we could see.  How could such monstrous vandalism have been allowed?  Much later on I was attracted to and worked in the Rainbow Alliance, a green/left political group run by the wonderful Dr (later Prof) Joe Camilleri – I think I saw him almost as an alternative (politically speaking!) father figure, as may have many on the left.  I regret that my second career as a paid activist in the environment movement was much briefer than I’d hoped.  I met some fine people and some pretty awful ones too.  Certainly there are no reflexes as strong as those developed during primary training and career, particularly when making a big switch like that in my late forties.  I hadn’t really believed in burnout, or that it could happen to me – again more about that in an essay on dark times.

I remember making a speech about my dog’s breakfast of a career at a forty-years-on doctor’s reunion, the first I’d been to, and getting a lot of laughs. The previous (thirty year) reunion had engaged high flyers (heart transplant surgeons and others) from my year, and had been roundly criticized by many less honoured attendees for being a bit ego-driven.  So for the next reunion they sought lower flyers, and it was my dubious distinction to be one of those chosen to speak.  Oh well.

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