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The Steadying Hand of Experience

November 23, 2021


The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.—William Osler

One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.—James Russell Lowell

Adventure is worthwhile.—Aesop

Years ago, as a newly minted third-year medical student turned loose (from two years of mind-numbing classroom lectures) to roam the medical wards of a bustling Minneapolis hospital, I felt someone warmly put their hand upon my shoulder. Turning, I beheld the unfamiliar face of a wizened senior physician. Grey, stooped, and bespectacled, he smiled at me and pointed to the numerous books and cheat sheets awkwardly stuffed into the groaning pockets of my white coat. “Someday,” he winked, “you won’t need to carry any of those around.” As he walked away, I muttered, “When?”

What on earth was he talking about, and how would I ever arrive at such a confident, exalted place?

He was talking about experience.

It is a curious thing that for nearly everyone going through some form of intense training in medicine and law, business and education, plumbing and mechanics (the list is endless), the true training comes after the books close, the grades are in, and the graduation balloons have lost their float. As I left two years of medical school bookwork behind, there was so much that I had learned, but I had no true idea how to use it. I had no experience.

A mentor in my early years of medical school once likened the facts being taught to me as small, colorful balls. Someone hands you an interesting fact, like a ball, and you look at it with intrigue and curiosity. As you turn it over and peer at it in your hand, you are being handed another fact, and another. And another. Before long, you are holding these amazing, but innumerable facts under your arms, in your lap, under your chin. There seems to be no place to put them. You are simply overwhelmed with facts. But then comes your clinical experience where you see how these facts look in practice. What matters and what doesn’t. How they fit with each other and how you remember them. You now begin to have clinical categories—memories of patients—that serve as sacks for the facts to be placed into. Heart failure? Oh, yes, that patient had a low ejection fraction on her echo, swollen legs, distended neck veins, and trouble breathing lying flat. Clack!—Clack!—Clack! The balls of facts stack in the heart failure sack.

But experience takes time. And it’s not just in weeks or months (although the amount learned in a short time is striking), but years and decades. I remember reading a book about how to survive in medical school, and it referred to the dominating question (one per year) leading up to and starting medical school: Will I get in? Will I stay in? Do I even want to be here? The question that followed these early questions was puckishly repeated every year thereafter: Will I ever know enough? The answer, of course, is “Perhaps. But you need more experience.” My greatest frustration as a young doctor (and the frustration of my eager but stumbling medical students and residents) was that I couldn’t get experience fast enough. I wanted to leave the realm of the uncertain kid with books crammed in my pockets and arrive at the jaunty physician who put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t want to squeak out flumphing beginner notes on my trumpet; I wanted to be Miles Davis playing cool, effortless jazz. And I wanted it now. But as the wise poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds, sometimes we must “live the questions for now” because “everything must be carried to term before it is born.”

What does experience do for us? I would offer three suggestions: it chastens, emboldens, and forms.

Experience chastens. Whenever I started to get cocky about something in my youth, my dad would ominously quote Proverbs, saying, “Pride cometh before the fall.” This dictum is rooted in the experience that just when you think you have it all figured out, the world falls on your head. Experience reminds us that practice is a lot less neat than theory. Reality proves to be a bit more complicated, messy, and full of contingency. We just don’t know it all, and so we have to experience it. Hamlet, alarmed at having witnessed his father’s ghost, warns his good but cocksure friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Experience shows us our flawed judgments and unintended consequences. It also shows us our hidden strengths and budding insights. Experience makes us a bit less harsh and a bit more forgiving. Inexperience is Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts forever bellowing “Off with his head” at the slightest infraction; experience is the King of Hearts recognizing his wife’s caprice, winking, and privately pardoning everyone. “Conviction without experience,” Flannery O’Connor warns, “makes for harshness.” Experience tempers our wild passions and fierce moods. It looks before leaping and walks in another’s shoes. Naiveté is sometimes ruthlessly black and white. Experience is often black and blue—a bit beaten up and circumspect from having been there, reluctant in its enthusiasms and comfortable in its reserve. Experience is not less faithful to the truth, but it understands “truth on the ground” as it plays out in all of its glory and struggle. Experience chastens.

Experience emboldens. Experience makes a memory and draws a map. Because it knows, it is more at ease with that which it does not know. It brings us to the next level of maturity. Experience clarifies what matters; it separates wheat from chaff. It is what Christ offers the Pharisees when, in their presence, he heals the blind man, forgives the adulteress, and illuminates with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is Hamlet’s experience holding the wretched skull of his childhood jester Yorick that crystallizes how he will avenge his murdered father. It is Churchill’s experience in the political wilderness that helps him courageously cobble a consensus to withstand the menace of Hitler. And it is Simon’s experience following Christ—with flashes of brilliance and moments of misery—that turns him into Peter, the rock. Experience emboldens.

Experience forms. It has been said that “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” Whether earned from bitter failure, hard-won success, or simply just “being there,” experience hones those soft, ineffable skills. It sharpens intuition and molds common sense. The iconic physician William Osler insisted that “to study medicine without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study medicine only from books is not to go to sea at all.” In the film Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams schools the cocky but inexperienced Matt Damon when he challenges his naive certitude: “If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him: life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.” The unfolding daily rigors of the priest in the parish and the teacher in the classroom, the doctor in the clinic and the mother with her child forms them every minute of every day. And that formation is irreplaceable. Experience forms.

Naturally, it will be asked: Can there be wasted experience? Of course. Endlessly engaging in a repetitive task that crushes the soul and deadens the mind is not good experience. Can good experience be wasted? Without doubt. Those who sleepwalk through brilliant mentors and formative moments will not tap into indispensable wisdom.

But experience, both rich and raw, lived with humility and intentionality, is precisely why we are here. For we are not meant to cower in corners or live tepid, inoffensive lives. We are called to sing and to roar, to parry and to fly, to love gratuitously and to pray fervently. We will be held accountable for the use of our gifts. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,” Jesus tells us, “and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48) We are encouraged to live boldly. When Peter nervously asked Jesus if he might risk all and walk to him on the water, Christ simply said, “Come.” We are called to care for others. When the disciples sniffed that the lunchtime crowds needed to disperse, Jesus disagreed, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves” (Matt. 14:16). Again and again, Christ implores the disciples to live, drink deep of life’s experiences, and advance the kingdom of God. “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). “Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:2-3). “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). He asks the same of us. In answering his call, we are ambling our way heavenward.

It has been many years since that grey, stooped physician smiled and put his hand upon my shoulder. In a way, I can still feel it resting there. “It’s going to be okay,” he assured, “you just need more experience.”

He was right.