“Es un proceso.”
I received this reminder from one of my new Costa Rican friends yesterday about the experience of learning a language and the patience it requires. He is from Samara, my current residence, and has been studying English for several years. He described his ongoing frustration with the confusing vocabulary (their, there, they’re), the often irregular past tense (sit-sat, hit-hit, fit-fitted), and the ever-present idioms that make him want to cry. What struck me was that, despite what he was saying, he didn’t really seem frustrated at all – just accepting of the fact that he had a lot of stumbling ahead of him. For someone who had spent the last few days feeling a bit exhausted by the $%#! process, the timing of the reminder was perfect.
Let me shift gears a bit and tell a story about another necessary component of learning a new language, be it Spanish, English, or medicine. I was about six weeks into medical school and had the mountains of flashcards and smelly clothes to prove it. Despite the overwhelming amounts of information, I was thrilled with my exciting new life and felt I had finally discovered a routine that worked. I would get up, eat, go to class, eat, study, (exercise?), eat, study more, (eat?), sleep. Rinse and repeat. Having spent the first month and a half building up my attention-span muscles, I was astonished at my newfound capacity to focus and go without much sleep.
Around a week later, things started to shift. While I was keeping up with my demanding schedule, some new and distinctly unpleasant feelings were starting to creep in. The first was paranoia. What if none of my classmates liked me? What if I froze during an exam and remembered nothing? What if (insert your own irrational fear here)? I started to feel a little jangly, starting awake pre-alarm and reacting a little more quickly (and negatively) to harmless quips thrown out by my friends. And I was no longer sleeping well, but oddly still didn’t feel tired. I couldn’t understand why what had been working so beautifully suddenly wasn’t.
Sometime between five and six a.m. the next day I was in the middle of my normal morning routine: making coffee, packing my lunch, glancing at notes scattered on the counter, trying to cook a few eggs without starting a fire on the stove, and probably a few other things. As I was pouring the coffee I realized with shock that I was crying. And not just in the teary eyes kind of way – crying in that coursing-tears, wet-cheeks kind of way. The craziest part was that I didn’t even feel sad. Actually I didn’t feel much of anything.
It occurred to me on the way to school that maybe the powerful adrenaline wave I had been riding was now crashing down on my head, and that unless I wanted to repeat the high/crash cycle for the next four years I’d better work out some ground rules for a more sustainable life. I started simply, setting a limit to the number of hours I would study per day, giving myself a bedtime that was eight hours pre-wakeup time, and trying (hard) to accept the fact that the arc of learning was more jagged than smooth. Perhaps most difficult for my type-A personality, I tried to accept that I was never – ever – going to be able to check off every single thing on my to-do list.
A month later things were better. I was waking with the alarm and no longer crying over my coffee – at least not for no apparent reason. My friends let me know that I had become noticeably more pleasant to be around. And – a real surprise – I started doing better on my exams. (Reality disclaimer: there will be plenty of times in medical school/life where your best-laid plans will fly out the window and you will have to put your head down and just go. But this need not and should not be your daily routine.)
Rather than say any more, I want to close with a picture. Here’s a little guy (un perezoso: South American sloth) I encountered in Manuel Antonio National Park. His assigned task in life is to obtain and consume what he needs to survive. He moves slowly and deliberately, with a lot of nap breaks, and when he finds food he takes the time to thoroughly chew and enjoy each bite. Our assigned tasks may be different, but in terms of how to approach them, I think he’s onto something.