My inspiration can come from anywhere which is true of many people who enjoy writing. I’m constantly on the alert for the little snippets in my environment that can connect the dots between sometimes disparate thoughts. Surprisingly, inspiration struck on a Sunday afternoon in a most unusual way (pun intended).
My 12-year-old daughter and I were sitting on the couch trying to find something we could both watch after a busy day filled with many scheduled activities. I really value this unstructured time and while it could be spent more productively, there is a human need to “veg out” and let the mind idle. My kids have gotten in the habit of asking me to find “old” movies to watch. They seem to enjoy the less than stellar effects, odd looking clothes (i.e Member’s Only jackets and parachute pants), and strange phrases uttered by people of my generation. There are of course, the modern classics which I believe most would say were worth having their kids watch- Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, ET, Ghostbusters, Spaceballs, Top Gun, Beetlejuice. Of course, the appropriateness level is variable. I thought Big would be appropriate but it definitely had some sexual themes I did not remember. No surprise that my kids enjoyed The Princess Bride but UHF? My son asked to watch it a second time (and since then has been watching Weird Al Yancovic videos).
So it was in this vein that my daughter asked me to dig deep and find her a classic we could watch together. As I wracked my brain, it suddenly came to me- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
If you do not remember this cinematic masterpiece, you are not alone. Starring Keanu Reeves as Ted and Alex Winter as Bill, this story takes place in late 80s San Dimas, CA where the fate of future intergalactic harmony depends on these two friends passing high school World History. With intervention from a future time traveler (Rufus-George Carlin), Bill and Ted collect historic figures ( Socrates (who they call Sokrates), Billy the Kid, Lincoln, Napoleon, Freud, Genghis Khan, etc…) to help in their final presentation.
This movie is not an intellectual juggernaut and while we enjoyed watching it for how bad it was, on the surface it would not seem inspiring. But then, it clicked. Like I mentioned, I have these random thoughts and it sometimes takes a simple phrase or image to make it gel. A few weeks ago, I operated on a very nice lady. Because some of our patients come from far away, I often schedule surgery for patients by talking to them on the phone first, getting their images and records, communicating with the local doctor, and meeting them in clinic the day before surgery. Often these patients have their surgery and I follow-up by phone or video visit and they have their surveillance with the local physician. It saves patients from having to make costly and time consuming trips back and forth to Ann Arbor as well as reducing the stress that many have from being away from home and family.
After the surgery, I saw my patient the next day. She was up walking in the halls and ready to go home. I walked the hall with her and all of a sudden, she gives me a big hug out of the blue. She mentioned that before I called her, she was scared, had not understood what the other doctors had told her, and was afraid she was going to die. She thanked me for talking to her like a human being and for how kind everyone else had been to her and her husband.
When I get thanked for doing my job, I of course am gracious but I’m also sad inside. Explaining medical issues to patients who see us in ways that everyone can understand is our job. I unfortunately see too many patients who come to us for second opinions just to get some answers. I don’t blame the other doctors. Explanation takes time and too many of us have too little time to spend with our patients. But when it comes to surgery, even if a patient is willing to trust me with life and limb, I’m going to confirm that they understand what the plan is and can articulate it back to me. Shared knowledge builds trust and demonstrates respect for our patients. In my patients case, just a little extra time transformed a harrowing experience into positive medical care.
The other thought that watching the movie pulled together for me is the idea that small talk helps us connect with someone else on a personal level. I have taken care of many of my patients for years and I always try to take a minute or two to ask them about their family, their hobbies, or something else that is meaningful in their life. Conversely, my patients have become comfortable asking me non-medical questions. They want to know how my kids and wife are doing, whether I have taken time off, how was my last fishing trip, or how my administrative role is going. I know that there is no time for chit chat and my patients know that others are waiting to see me but I believe these short exchanges accomplish two important goals. First, and most important, is that this innocuous exchange of minor details acknowledges the humanity of each of us in the room. We are not just doctor and patient but real people with multidimensional lives that exist outside the exam room. Second, it helps me and the patient to see the person beyond the disease. I care for mostly cancer patients and I am always trying to encourage people to live full lives even while they are receiving treatment so that they know they are not the disease but rather a valued mother, father, friend, neighbor, etc… who has life beyond treatment.
Small talk and simple conversation can really help people out in their darkest hour. I was in the cafeteria buying lunch. Behind me was an older man who looked completely out of his element. I was going to let it fly but as he was trying to pay for his food, the tray tipped on the floor dumping out his lunch. Me and another person quickly re-ordered his food and helped him bring it upstairs to his wife. It turns out as we were chatting that we were both from the same town. I grew up in San Antonio and its a big city and where I grew up was no where near his home but that simple connection gave him some grounding. You see, he was up visiting his wife’s family and she unfortunately got ill and needed to be hospitalized. He was far from home without his kids and scared what was happening with his wife of 43 years. His wife did get better and through that simple exchange, I was able to find her a specialist for her condition in San Antonio who had been in my medical school class.
We talk about kindness and compassion to one another but I believe that Bill and Ted aimed for something higher, “Be Excellent to Each Other”. Being excellent to each other implies something greater than kindness. I sometimes feel that when we are kind or do good deeds, we are doing it more for ourselves than the person we are trying to help. We are trying to prove our worth or find meaning through action. But being excellent to one another implies that we are being kind, compassionate or helpful with no strings attached and that the interaction is really providing meaning to both parties. It is about finding joy just by being with someone else, conversation without an agenda, or mutual activity that is not about competition or goals. It is about valuing those around us for who they are rather than who they are not and breaking down the multitude of barriers that keep people apart. Ultimately its about treating everyone we encounter with dignity and respect and accepting the same from others.
The one thing that struck me about the movie was Ted’s behavior. Despite the threat of military school in Alaska, the demeaning language that his Dad would assail him with, Ted always responded respectfully. Bill and Ted may be idiots but their approach to life was not stupid. I don’t believe it is hard to start being excellent to each other. Instead of paying attention to our phones in the check out line at the grocery store, engage in small talk with those around you. If they don’t respond, no big deal. But eventually a person might and you might learn something you never knew, find a connection that would have never been revealed, or be in a position to help someone else or for them to help you. There does not need to be an agenda. I know this borders on the creepy in the “#MeToo” era but perhaps simple non-threatening conversation without an agenda is a way for us to restore the web of humanity that we need in our lives.
While Bill would always say, “Be excellent to each other”, Ted would respond “Party on, dudes.” While life is not a constant party and we all deal with stress, tragedy, and pain, being excellent to each other forges connections that allow us to find joy in the small things in life. With the increased rhetoric of divide and difference being spread by both ends of the political spectrum in our society, we need to be excellent to each other more than ever now to restore sanity to our culture. I hope you will join me in being excellent to those around you.
Thanks for reading.