Earning Respect Rather Than Asking for It

All about earning respect rather than demanding it.

Bhavin Jankharia

Posts on days like Doctor’s Day, especially the ones sent by doctors to other doctors and also to non-doctors run the gamut from how we save lives to how we sacrifice our families, our friends, our sleep, our bodies and our souls at the altar of patient care and how, more importantly, non-doctors must recognize our commitment to duty and not criticize us or say anything derogatory, or challenge us or be violent towards us, and should just call us heroes and praise us and thank us for our selflessness.

This makes no sense.

Respect has to be earned not demanded and these posts and concepts are problematic at so many levels.

The first is the self-adulation…the overt messaging of how we sacrifice family, friends, functions, children, engagements, weddings, sleep, our bodies, souls, etc. to keep others’ families and friends healthy and safe so they can attend functions and engagements and weddings and take care of their children and sleep well. Yes, many of us do that. And yet, except for residents in training in hospitals, who perhaps had no clue what they were getting into and who need support and encouragement from their seniors and consultants and teachers more than the rest of the world to get through their training with their minds and bodies intact, the rest of us don’t need to ask the world to be grateful.

The profession gives back so much. Long after our non-medical friends have retired, we will continue to work, well into our 70s and 80s, unless we have taken a conscious choice to step back or stop (which very few of us in India do anyway), not dependent on just our savings or pensions, but earning a running income, which at that age, is so damn important, whatever the amount may be. We earn respect, of those around us, our patients, family, friends, people who look up to us…even if they all believe that doctors as a whole are not to be trusted, they will proudly tell everyone that the individual doctors they know are different. Our degree initially earns that respect for us and then we earn it with our work. We don’t have to demand it or remind everyone to keep telling us how grateful they are we exist.

In fact, perhaps there should be a patient’s day, where we doctors express gratitude to patients for being our true teachers, who as part of our knowledge ecosystem, train us and contribute to our learning. Respect and gratitude cuts both ways.

Respect has to be earned, not demanded.

The second is our delusion that we are so amazing that people must be reminded of the great work we do.

I love being a doctor. It gives me purpose. Long after most others have lost their purpose in life, many doctors continue to make a difference. For most doctors, getting up in the morning and believing that we can change a life or save one, is the difference between a day of nothingness and a day with meaning. We do what we do because it makes us feel good. And along with feeling good, we earn a reasonable income, live well, eat well, travel and manage to educate our children in some of the best schools and colleges in India or abroad. Most doctors fall within the top 5th percentile of this country and in most countries on this globe.

What we do, whether it is long hours, or sacrificing social lives or sleep or neglecting our bodies, is a choice we make for the benefits these give us in the long run, along with the benefits to our patients and people.

So let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this is a one-way street…that we sacrifice and people must be grateful for that. We sacrifice, not from some obscure sense of altruism, but because that is who we are and that is what keeps us going and makes our lives worthwhile and meaningful. So why do we want people to sing our praises, when our self-worth should itself mean much more than any validation from elsewhere? As they say in Western countries, “validation is only for parking.”

Respect has to be earned, not demanded.

The third is the mistaken belief some of us doctors have that our long hours and so-called sacrifices are virtues that make us better than others and hence these others should recognize us as being virtuous. Just as being vegetarian does not make someone more virtuous than another who eats meat and fish, or running marathons doesn’t make runners saints compared to those who are sedentary, similarly, our hard work as doctors does not make us holier-than-thou compared to those who are not doctors and who apparently don’t seem to work as hard, or sacrifice as much, or even if they do, not save lives or relieve suffering.

A doctor is not more virtuous than a non-doctor. We are not saints, we are not Gods and we shouldn’t expect to be treated in that manner or be treated differently.

Respect has to be earned, not demanded.

Once in a rare while, some of us go will go beyond the call of duty, as those who worked in hospitals during the early days of Covid-19 or those who often rush to disaster sites without thinking…but those are unusual circumstances and while a little recognition is a salve for the soul, in such circumstances, that recognition should come on its own, not be demanded.

The last is the often subconscious way in which we demand to be recognized as doctors, assuming that the label is a surrogate for respect and that people should know we are doctors and address us as doctors. In a hospital or clinic in front of a patient or relatives, we have to obviously clearly identify ourselves as doctors. But in non-medical social interactions, why do we have to make sure that people immediately know we are doctors? When we go to social gatherings, and someone says, “Hi, I am Vivek”, the vast majority of us will counter, “Hi, Vivek, I am Dr. Samir”. Not “I am Samir”, but I am “Dr. Samir”. Why does this interaction have to be completely unbalanced from the beginning, wherein we are again subtly demanding and asking for respect and recognition? If the conversation on its own had gone further, then at some point our profession would have come up, but to queer the pitch from the beginning makes no sense…and then we crib when people come to us at parties for free consultations.

This, “I am Dr. so and so” has become so bad that in a meeting where everyone is a doctor and everyone knows that everyone else is a doctor, everyone still insists on introducing themselves as “Dr so and so” and calling others “Hey Dr. Shah…” implying that we also want to be addressed as “Dr. first name or last name”, when everyone could as well just be on a first name basis without a label among peers and use the “Dr.” or “Sir” only for those who are much older or senior by many years or decades as a mark of respect we give, but should not demanded.

Respect is earned, not demanded.

Sometimes, though, I wonder whether we can help ourselves at all. As my friend Deval Bagalkote has to say,

There is the doing good
There is the feeling of making a difference
There is saving someone's life
There is alleviating suffering
But the genuine awe that a patient/ family has in their eyes towards you quickly becomes an addiction that gives us a euphoric high. And then we want more and all the time. And because it is usually intermittent to varying degrees for doctors, we keep subconsciously just asking for it whenever there is an opportunity.

We are people first, doctors second.

Medical Musings