Last week I discussed how I felt advances in technology lead to unrealistic expectations of healthcare professionals being constantly accessible to clients. The reviews of the article were mixed, with most people leaning towards understanding how emotionally taxing a life of continuously being plugged in can be, but a few individuals expressed their sentiment that as a doctor, I’m essentially obligated to be on call for others at all times.
I found one reader’s response particularly intriguing, as they theorized that some owners could possess lofty expectations of my time and expertise because, quite simply, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The quote was borrowed from the movie Spiderman, a film I’ve never seen (I’m much more partial to the Batman series, myself). However, I am fascinated by linguistics, and the phrase intrigued me to the point where I felt compelled to further investigate its origin.
Turns out (if you believe everything you read on the Internet…), you can find references to the idiom many times over the course of history.
- In a speech Franklin D. Roosevelt was scheduled to deliver at the Jefferson Day Dinner in 1945, one day before he died, he said, "Today we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility."
- Winston Churchill, upon receiving an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1943, stated, “The price of greatness, is responsibility.”
- In 1832, Francois-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire), in Oeuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48, wrote, “Un grand pouvoir impose une lourde responsabilité.” Which translates roughly to “great power imposes a heavy responsibility.”
- We can even travel way back to the new testament of the Bible, where in Luke 12:48, Jesus teaches, "From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
So if I’m interpreting this information correctly, political leaders, great thinkers, and the Holy Spirit all recognized the pressures of constant accessibility, well before the invention of iPhones, the Internet, or Facebook?
This means technology isn’t to blame for the emotional toll of being constantly “on call.” Rather, the pressure arises from factors inherent to being a leader and/or expert in a particular discipline or field. In other words, being good at something today means you’re expected to strive to be better at it tomorrow, and so on, and so on.
But here’s the counter argument I would put forth: I’m not Spiderman. I’m not a leader of a country or a powerful thinker. And I’m not Jesus. I’m simply a human being trained in a very specific discipline and deemed “good” at what I do, but at the end of the day I’m imperfect and flawed, and I’m going to make mistakes from time to time. The philosophy of “more, more, more” is unrealistic, unsustainable, and, at times, utterly overwhelming.
Would I be better equipped to accept my duties if I wore a cape and tights, or possessed a tiara and a magic wand I could use to fix everything? If I were somehow “less” human, would I be more successful in my “responsibilities?”
Truthfully, I’m confident I wouldn’t.
The issue I have with not quite buying into the “power equals responsibility” as a doctor theory comes from my observation that no matter how much I give of myself and my time, 1) it will never be enough for some people, and 2) some people will never respect me enough to not understand that I am a person in addition to being their pet’s oncologist .
I accept and understand how my expertise and training places me in a unique position where I literally am making life and death decisions multiple times a day. Surely I’ve got the responsibility thing down, but I’ll argue the power portion ultimately doesn’t lay in my hands, but rather in the hands of my owners. It seems a better descriptor for my profession might be “With great responsibility comes more responsibility.”
In keeping with the superhero theme, I think Batman summed up my feelings pretty well when he said:
“People think it's an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It's never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I'm doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn't that day. And tomorrow won't be either.”
Dr. Joanne Intile