Our value to others trumps successes

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Aug 01, 2006

Have you ever contemplated the answer to the question: "What is our purpose in life?"

What can we do to bring true happiness to ourselves and to others? After having the privilege to spend more than four decades as a member of the veterinary profession, I would answer these questions in this way.

"What is our purpose in life?"

Albert Einstein, one of the world's most famous scientists and philosophers, wrote the following admonition concerning the purpose of life.

He said, "Strive not to be a man (or woman) of success, strive to be a person of value." What does being a person of value encompass? How does it differ from being a person of success? How can we put this principle in to practice?

I interpret Einstein's admonition to mean that the value of what we unselfishly do to benefit others is of greater overall benefit than the value of what we do ourselves to achieve personal success. In this context, we become selfish not by pursuing our own needs, but rather by neglecting the needs of others. It follows that our true value in life should be measured in context of what it accomplishes in behalf of others, and not just in light of what it does for us in the way of income or prestige.

The definition of a profession encompasses the concept of an occupation guided by an ethical code that has a service rather than a profit motive. In this context, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that the conduct of members of a profession motivated to serve others would be primarily based on giving rather than getting? Whereas companies like General Motors and Microsoft are primarily motivated by making a monetary profit, it is my interpretation that the health professions should be primarily motivated by a desire to direct their talents and resources toward the care of living beings — animal and human.

Thus, we must use caution to avoid the tendency to selfishly exploit circumstances so as to unduly profit from the illnesses of others. Rather we strive to be compassionate by having empathy for the distress and misfortunes of others combined with a compelling heartfelt desire to help them.

If ethical conduct directs the veterinary profession primarily toward a service rather than a profit orientation, should the amount of our net incomes be the primary measure of our success? If we adhere to Einstein's admonition to strive to be persons of value, perhaps the norm of success should be viewed in context of the overall impact of our professional services on the health and welfare of animals under our care rather than "the bottom line". Perhaps in addition to evaluating our year-end fiscal balance, we should include the number of clients and patients that have benefited by our efforts to serve their needs.

"So, what is our purpose in life?" as veterinarians, our mission is to serve rather than be served. Therefore, we must uphold the traditional value of caring and sharing by avoiding the contemporary code of making and taking with indifference to the needs of others. As members of a "profession", we should use our God-given energy, talents and resources to provide for the needs and welfare of other beings.

"What can we do to bring true happiness to ourselves and others?" Being guided by the enduring principle that there is greater happiness in giving than receiving, it becomes apparent that our greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more. In this context, happiness is a byproduct of doing things for others, and not an end in itself.

In reflecting on the activities and accomplishments of colleagues, friends and family that I have known during my lifetime, it is my conclusion that what we do for ourselves dies with us. In contrast, what we do for others lives on.

Therefore, until the day arrives when our lamp of service is extinguished, let us continue to give of our talents and energies in behalf of the welfare of others.

Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.