Life thoughts

Google searches

I just Googled “How to know to pursue an MD-PhD.” Then I stopped, stepped back, and laughed at myself. How in the world would a quick Google search give me any kind of reliable, meaningful, and honest information about such a big – and personal – question? It was so absurd that I actually laughed out loud to myself. While a funny example, I took a peek at the other auto-fill suggestions that Google supplied as I was typing: “How to know about my future” or “How to know if you’re in love” or “How to know to trust someone”. I thought about how deep, and complex, those questions are and, consequently, how deeply we yearn for quick and easy answers to them. I’m convinced that we all long for easy answers to hard questions. We desire for someone to tell us what to pursue in life, who to marry, when to make big investments, when to change careers, etc. Maybe you don’t wish for answers and enjoy the waiting game, but most of us would love to have an infinite collection of those answers at our fingertips. They make life simpler, less stressful, and more predictable. They make things easy.

But we don’t. We don’t have the answers to life’s big decisions – like whether or not to spend 7-8 years in school pursuing an MD-PhD or when to get married or when to change careers. We are sometimes lost, indefinitely, for answers at all. After I did my quick search and realized how silly it was, I thought about how blessed I am to be in a position of such difficult decisions. I am okay with not finding anything that resolved my questioning at the end of that Google search. I’m okay because I understand that we have hard decisions in life because that means we are living it, robustly and consciously. We are not sitting around waiting for life to happen but are instead posed against challenging and thought-provoking questions; if you’re asking when to get married that means you appreciate and are active in the process of finding lifelong love. If you’re worrying about a career change, it means you are thinking about the condition and happiness of your future. I am considering “next step” decisions in my education, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to consider those options. After my quick-and-easy Google search, I, unsurprisingly, didn’t find anything that answered my question. I found some helpful sites with anecdotal advice or frequently asked questions, but ultimately these hard decisions are answered based on our own considerations, life experiences and goals, and provisions for what we consider to be important and meaningful. Instead of mindlessly searching for answers, on the internet or otherwise, it may be better just to have a conversation with someone – yourself, a friend, a mentor – about why you’re asking that question and what are the considerations that led you there. In life, it is okay to not have answers to these questions just yet. I really believe they are coming and only require patience, grit, and perseverance before they show up in full view. Sometimes, all it takes is a silly search on the internet to remind you that life is far more complex than Google can answer, and that is perfectly okay.

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Man’s Search for Meaning

Sometimes you read books that flood you with emotion and leave you with wonder (and admittedly, a few tears). Honestly, I have not written a lot lately – at least in an expressive and creative way. I have, however, tried to implement more reading into my life to supplement the mechanistic and mathematical coursework I had this semester. It was a serendipitous pleasure to hear about a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. After attempts to read this book over the past month, I finally finished it today, warmly curled up in front of the glowing Christmas tree. While reading Viktor Frankl’s prized writing, I kept thinking to myself how important the message of this book was (and understood why it has been loved for so many years). Man’s Search for Meaning is a recount of the experiences that Viktor Frankl endured during Nazi concentration camp imprisonment. The conditions he describes and the lens he gives on human behavior during the unfathomable life of a camp deeply impacted me. This is not a book purely describing the harsh experiences of Auschwitz though, Dr. Viktor Frankl writes from his psychiatric and neurological training, his philosophical and religious curiosity, and ultimately his desire to help others learn the meaning of their own life.

Undoubtedly, the aim of my own life is to find meaning in my work and in my actions. I believe this looks different for every single person. Despite commonly held truths or life ambitions, every person has unique and individual encounters on a daily basis that shape who they are and who the world interprets them to be. I have come to learn life as continued decision-making; seemingly meaningless, everyday decisions ultimately form the mosaic that our lives become. They form what we look back on and see and the legacy we leave for ourselves. The minute-to-minute decisions that shape our lives are in our control, and I believe that. I don’t think of life as definite determinism or a blind, random outcomes. The culmination of our lives and the efforts we work towards are the products of our own decisions. Instead of just stating my personal opinion, I’ll share some of the meaningful concepts that Viktor Frankl describes in his book. I would love to describe everything that I found to be important, but that would take an entire book itself. Instead, I will focus on what I found to be most applicable in my life right now, and hopefully yours, too.


It is important to note the perspective that Viktor Frankl writes from. A brief biography – Dr. Viktor Frankl is a trained psychiatrist and neurologist. During World War II he was deported from Vienna to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and later other  camps. He endured the most inhumane forms of torture and neglect; and writes extensively about these. The first half of the book focuses on his experiences. He details the way his physical human identity was stripped from him, and he was subjected to the lifestyle of an animal. He writes of what he observed – the way the human body and brain could be in conflict, the profound way prisoners could unite together on the basis of mere survival, and the intentional and developing mental coping mechanisms he used to survive the years he spent surrounded by death and suffering. The second half of the book focuses on a therapeutic technique that Frankl coined as “logotherapy”. The use of this technique focuses, not on Freudian psychotherapeutic techniques, but on realizing and actualizing the meaning of one’s life.

Frankl explicitly notes that it is impossible to generalize the meaning of life and any attempts at this are pointless. Instead, he focuses on meaning of one’s life in a moment, in a day. He writes,

“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Frankl writes that every person has the potential to lead a meaningful life. Importantly, he writes that the meaning of each life is unique to the individual. I mentioned earlier that my life and its goals, although similar to someone with comparable circumstances or ambitions, is vastly different than the other person’s. Each day, I encounter different circumstances, different people, and different opportunities than that person. I have a way of thinking that is unique to me and that I can use to bring meaning to my life and vice versa for the other person.

Throughout this book, I kept thinking of the grand-scheme meaning I want for my life. Not surprisingly, I want to be a physician and for many reasons. The principal reason of course to alleviate the human suffering and to improve the lives of others through knowledge. This is a noble pursuit, and one that many of my best friends aspire for as well. However, I firmly believe that my pursuit of being a physician is no more noble than the person that aims to improve lives through music or art, literature or physical improvement, through economic and financial freedom, through education and teaching. As a college student, the focus is largely on the impact I (we all) hope to have through our endeavors. The college student is asked what he or she wants to become and the recipient makes a judgement on the utility of that answer, often in terms of monetary or material success. While this is the topic of an entirely different blog post, I think I learned something very valuable from A Man’s Search for Meaning on this very concept.

Although my career ambitions are important to me, Frankl showed me that the meaning of my life is not in the final picture or lasting legacy of my life. Instead, it is in the moments I have now. The incredibly valuable moments I have as a young, free, and responsible individual. The moments I have to give meaning every day, to a friend or family member, to a stranger. The days I can spend devoting my time to a cause that is focused not on myself but on others. It is not my obligation but my responsibility to do what life asks of me, with the talents and time I have been given. I see my friends and peers struggle with the grandeur meaning of life. I struggle with this as well. I think everyone does. There is a commonly accepted belief that we work hard in our twenties to reap the benefits in our thirties. I personally feel that when life is reduced to a series of sacrifices for a future goal, bitterness is likely to ensue. Envisioning and being hopeful for the future was a very successful mechanism that Dr. Frankl used to escape the atrocities of the concentration camp; he spoke daily with his wife, in his mind. He lived for the day he would be reunited with those he loved. This worked for the maintenance of his sanity in the harsh conditions of the concentration camp but is something I feel logotherapy and his theories conflict with.

Life is most meaningful now. A natural message that Frankl writes about is the ability to experience meaning in life despite suffering. He writes from a very personal perspective. He found meaning in life through the famine, filth, and fatigue he experienced. Through the friends he witnessed dying and the patients he had to watch suffer. The meaning of his life was not compromised despite his becoming a number and a body, awaiting an order to the gas chambers. I want to emphasize that Viktor Frankl’s story is indeed heroic, but it is not the exception. Finding meaning in suffering is possible. Suffering doesn’t always look like the inside of a Nazi concentration camp. Sometimes it looks like the loss of a job, the death of a friend, the divorce of parents, the failure at a goal, the anxious thoughts that seem permanent. Sometimes suffering is temporary and sometimes it is chronic. The difference between the person that suffers with overwhelming depression and meaninglessness and the person that suffers with integrity and optimism is simply the refocusing of perspective and attitude. Again, Frankl’s wise words resound,

“The perception of meaning differs from the classical concept of Gestalt perception insofar as the latter implies that the sudden awareness of a ‘figure’ on a ‘ground,’ whereas the perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation . . . If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.”

I don’t think that Frankl’s theories are simplistic, but I do think they are very pragmatic and applicable. He doesn’t write his recollection of Nazi imprisonment to reinforce lofty philosophical and psychological theories, but to disperse the knowledge he has used to overcome the real threat of a meaningless life. I highly recommend this book. It taught me how to deal with my personal suffering, what it means to lead a meaningful life, and the importance of sharing all of this with others in the way that Dr. Viktor Frankl has.


It feels so good to read and write on break! Next up: a fun read of the Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries. Life is all about balance, right? I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

 

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strength in uncertainty

Two summers ago I was probably in a steadfast sleep with ambitious plans to lay by the pool all day. I would likely wake up and plan for the day’s activities, carry them out in an effortless manner, and plan to do the same thing the next day. Fast forward two years and I wake up everyday around 6:00am, work in the lab until sometimes 6:00pm and spend my evenings snuggled away with a book or an episode of Fixer Upper. I contrast these two explicitly to highlight how things have changed. My life has changed dramatically, in more ways than just the activities I do during the summer, and it has been challenging. I had first written the word hard, but I don’t want the negative connotations surrounding that word to be a mental stopping block. Challenging is a better word because challenges involve change. It is challenging to try to determine what I want to do with my life. It is indeed a challenging task to try to figure out the perfect place that my skills and passion meet. It is challenging to be away from my family both now and while in school. Going away to college to study has been one of the most enlightening, motivating, and exciting things to happen to me. With it has come with new worries, fears, and challenges though. I say all of this not to simply express how going through life changes are difficult but to disclose a few words of treasured advice from someone I trust very deeply.

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks of oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 4:10-11

I read this over this morning and was truly shocked at how reading the bible can resonate to the core of the issues I am dealing with or that I know others are dealing with. The truth is, as much as we dislike it, we are not going to get an envelope in the mail from God revealing what career we should choose or what job is best suited for us. We will not have an epiphany moment where our dreams reveal the exact place in the world we belong to serve. Instead, we are given the freedom to choose how we want to spend the rest of our life. If I knew that I was going to have spend everyday seeking the millions of potential jobs that God has called me to do, I would be overcome with anxiety. Instead, I know that instead He has called me to focus on much bigger, more important things. He cares much less about the specific job I will be doing and much more on the spirit I will have while getting there and executing that career. Above, Peter tells us that we have each been given some kind of unique gift. To this gift’s end, we should use it to enhance and beautify the lives of others. We serve one another. I feel like when people think of serving one another they think of jobs and careers in healthcare or education or social work. I think these are exclusively narrowed careers and that there are way more opportunities to serve God than just treating the sick and educating children. I first think of Tim Tebow. Not many would assume that the job of a professional athlete is to serve others in the way God has asked us too. But Tim Tebow took the career and passion that he loved and sought to glorify and serve God with the talent that he was granted. Every piece of my being believes that each human on this earth has been given some kind of unique gift. It may not have manifested yet, but it resides deep within your inner being. It may need awakening, or a trigger event, or some kind of opportunity to unfold but deep within it remains there. I trust what God says, and he says that we have each received a talent. We may not be told exactly what future to pursue, which I think is another exemplary model of God’s grace and freedom. He gives us the freedom to choose Him, choose our future, choose our friends, choose our life. He gives us freedom and ways to use that freedom.

Once we decide how we want to spend our futures, or how we think we want to spend our futures, we should diligently seek God’s strength to serve and return to Him the glory that we receive for our work. This is a cornerstone for my life. Everything that I do in my pursuits to become a doctor or scientist or whatever my life unfolds, I seek to do those things in and through God’s power and grace. Only through Him alone have I been able to come as far as I have. I will seek Him everyday through every endeavor I become a part of. I don’t have it all figured out and I certainly have a lot of anxiety about my future. But I take it one day at a time, one moment at a time, and look to God to fill those places I hold fear and uncertainty. I felt like I needed to share this with those trying to determine their future – it’s not easy. But God has given us all individualized talents and the fortifying strength to use them, and to use them well.

 

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