“For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I thought about dwelling on 2017, on the hardships I experienced, the heartache and desolation that was felt sometimes, the brokenness that occurred early in the year. There was more than that though. I thought about writing about my successes in research, getting published, changing my major, finding my purpose (or trying to). I thought to write about the relationships I formed, the ones that came with me from 2016 and blossomed even more, the new ones that helped me love myself and others more, and the romantic one that I could have never predicted but am so thankful for. I thought about writing of my personal journey, the one where I felt empowered, then small, loved, then lonely, invincible, then broken, and the roller coaster that it was. I thought about writing about how I’ve changed (a lot) in good and bad ways, because it is arrogant and mistaken to say that we always only change in good ways (though I hope the good greatly outweighs the bad). I thought about the memories, the rich and vibrant memories of places I went (England! Ireland! Boston! Atlanta! The Gulf Coast! How blessed I am to see the world). My eyes took in some impeccable places with some amazing people.
I thought about it all, about 2017. It was painful. It was momentous. It was beautiful. Every day something happened, sometimes I wrote it down, but I mostly tried to store it away up top with failure more than I wished (we always overestimate the ability of our memory). I did write some though, mostly prayers in pen tucked away in a book filled with empty pages and my deepest hopes and dreams and concerns and questions. I thought a lot, about what love actually is, and whether it can actually last, and what I believe and who I am and where I belong and what I will do for the rest of my life. I worried a bit too, about the latter questions and if I will find happiness in what I am pursuing and the life I am building. I thought about my future. I thought about the present, whether I was making the right decisions. I thought about my friends, how truly blessed and favored I am, how God always takes care of me. I thought about faith, my journey, my flaws, my strengths. I thought about my blessings. I tried to think of them more than my problems, insecurities, and heartaches. They were abundantly more in the past year than those anyways. There were nights I cried, full of questioning, and nights where my heart wanted to leap out of my chest for happiness and overwhelming peace. I can’t explain 2017, but it was a mysterious thing with some of the hardest and best times of my life. A year of true lows and glorious highs. To write of it would take a novel, to think of it would take a journey, but to appreciate it takes very little. I appreciate who I was this time last year and who my experiences over the last year have made me. I am indebted to those who have prayed for me, offered me their love, and walked with me through the past year. I am incredibly thankful to those who I’ve met who have accepted me and cherished me. Finally, I look to God for all He has done for me. I’ve experienced lovely, magnificent things because of Him, and my perspective on a difficult life change was crafted in His hands. What a year it has been. Here is to 2018 – another year of magical, unpredictable, eventful, and beautiful memories with those I love.
Humans are incredibly resilient. Probably more so than we recognize and acknowledge. We are resilient on both a personal and macroscopic level. We fight back, bounce back, and spring forward into life with a renewed strength. After everything has been drained from us and we are emotionally empty, somehow, we progress forward into a new wave of perseverance. The past year of my life has undoubtedly been the most difficult of the 21 years I’ve been living on this beautiful planet. I experienced moments of true darkness. In those moments, I felt internally shattered as I tried to piece together my external façade so others wouldn’t see my hurt. Strangely, the past year was also filled with remarkable moments of happiness and joy, strength and compassion, and unrequited love and friendship. This is what brought me through the valley and into the light. Macroscopically, I see Texans pushing forward as they reenter their homes and towns to find devastation and obliteration after a natural catastrophe stole their peace. They are not stunned into sadness but have the strength to carry on and rebuild. There are innumerable circumstances in the past – the World Wars, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, so many more – where people, who are inevitably limited and fragile, overcame grim and unsettling circumstances. They faced their darkness and broke through barriers of paralyzing fear. They depended on each other for comfort and strength – for friendship. Humans are amazing. I don’t think this resilience is a numbness of life that looks like an escalator we jump on to move forward, without any input from ourselves. I think this resilience is filled with a small glimmer of light – called hope – for a better future, for brighter days ahead. It looks more like an infinite number of stairs where we’re not afraid to take the first step on. We’re not afraid because we look back and look around us and see similar expressions of the same thing. We see brokenness and desolation, but hope. We’re not alone, and we never have been. You are never alone. You are resilient.
It may feel like the situation is inescapable and draining the strength from you like a vacuum; I promise it is temporary and controllable. Look up toward the stairwell and see others around you who have pushed through brokenness to find the strength. I personally believe hurt is relative and not absolute. Your hurt is as justified as any others. Likewise, your strength, maybe buried deep within, is just as available as any others. Trust in God who brought me out of my darkness, trust in friendship and love, and remember that we’re an inherently resilient people. We withstand the afflictions of disease and heartache, of destruction and despair, of loss and broken dreams. Yet we still find the strength to laugh with our friends, find purpose in our lives, and begin the journey out of defeat. We are incredibly resilient, and that is worth celebrating.
Find something you think is important and spend your life supporting it. How does one find meaning in the mundane, spontaneity in the ordinary, and purpose in the routine? These are questions I think about often, and I don’t think anyone knows. But I do think some are closer than others. I read a book over Christmas break that impacted me deeply (I wrote about it on here), and what I took away from it was the basic human need to do meaningful work. Some would argue that life should be spent pursuing fantastical adventures, exploring the unknown, living robust and exciting lives…and while this is true to some extent, it is supremely unconventional and sometimes plainly unattainable. I am a person that sometimes gets carried away on these lofty, imaginative thoughts as well, but nonetheless I find my roots and become grounded in the practicality of life. So what do we do when we can’t spend our lives traveling the globe, jumping out of airplanes, investing in nonprofit organizations, saving the lives of homeless people, writing best-selling books? I think my personal answer was revealed to me by a classmate in my European literature class yesterday. We were discussing The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. While we didn’t read this piece, there was a metaphor that we discussed. This was the vision of someone pushing a rock, up a hill, only to never reach the top. This person spent his whole life, some would say ignorantly, pushing a stone up the hill to never become satisfied in his efforts. In a way, we spend our entire lives doing the same thing. Maybe we are pushing along many stones, exerting ourselves in unnecessary ways, only to find that the end was never our goal. The entire journey is about the stone. What does all of this metaphysical, philosophical jargon mean anyways? For me, really a practical person, it means finding a stone I think worthy of spending my life pushing. Identifying, consciously, what it means to do meaningful work. It means actively engaging in my life in ways that I have been gifted, and exploring the limits of those treasures. Viktor Frankl would say that our fundamental human condition rests on doing and performing meaningful, purposeful work. This may not be a traditional “job”, but instead a cause that we support, a belief we are rooted in, or a purpose we feel destined to fulfill. Or, it may be a traditional vocation where we can utilize and implore our skills, grow, change, and transform. For me, what my stone is becomes clearer every day. Admittedly, there will be (and are) doubts (why should I spend my time doing this anyways?) but whether we are aware of it or not, we are all pushing something. Maybe yours is social media, the opinions of others, and mediocrity. Maybe it is a watered-down version of yourself. Maybe it is what your family and friends want for you instead of what you want for yourself. It really only takes conscious knowledge to change these things, and I have found myself in these examples as well. We are all spending our time, energies, and lives supporting something. For me, I want to be a part of this process. I want to push a stone that allows me to transform lives through my curiosities and my skills. I want to spend my life pushing myself towards fulfilling a greater purpose than I could ever be. I want to care for people in their most vulnerable state, discover new ideas, advance our understanding of the human condition and the science behind it. I want to allow myself creative exploration and the ability to write when I want. I want to permeate love and kindness and grace and hope in the places I share with those I cherish. Simply, I want to dedicate myself and my time to something meaningful. I think everyone does. The important part is to find that thing that makes you light up inside and is worth your time and energy. We all have them, and we will spend all of our lives pushing, supporting, sacrificing, all that we have to navigate that stone up the hill towards what we consider a meaningful and promising life.
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.
“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” – C.S. Lewis
My life feels particularly desert-like in this respect right now. While I love my science courses and really find them fascinating, I deeply miss writing and reading literature and philosophy. When thinking about how I feel a little unbalanced because I am so focused my other passions, I decided I would share some books that are my favorites and encouraged me to have deep reflection. Some of them are autobiographical nonfiction, some are simply fiction, but they are all incredible and close to my heart. Here are 5 books you need to read and think about! I offer some of the thoughts that followed my reading of the books that maybe you would find helpful if you read decide to read them. Try to reflect on the passages and glean some of the important messages that ruminate throughout them. And just like I have to remind myself, remember that in life, balance is everything. Never let the other things you love fall to the wayside in pursuit of your dreams.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is undoubtedly one of the most moving books I have ever read. I even wrote an entire post about my thoughts from this book, and I suggest reading that post after you have treated yourself to this book! Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a Stanford neurosurgeon who was unfortunately diagnosed with late stage IV lung cancer. This book is more than a memoir by a doctor; it makes you experience and feel what it is like to face death. This is a man’s honest and eye-opening journey to the end of his life. It is poetic. It is reflective and deeply emotional. I admire Dr. Kalanithi’s diverse passions and the ways he catered to both his reflective, literary side (by pursuing study in literature and philosophy) and the inquisitive, mechanistic side of life (through scientific study of medicine). He writes beautifully. This is a must read. I couldn’t put it down!
Thoughts for reflection: If I was looking back on my life, what have I made important? Have I been happy with my life or have I lived in chase of something else? What would I begin pursuing if I knew the moments I had were limited?
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Quiet is a book for introverts and extroverts alike. This book transformed the way I view my idiosyncratic behaviors. It made me realize it is okay to want to stay home. It is okay to want to work alone and prefer small friend groups. It is equally okay to be gregarious and love social environments. It made me realize that the qualities exhibited by introverted and extroverted people are all valuable. This is a nonfiction book full of thoroughly researched information about human behavior. It is amazing! It has some interesting pieces of psychology and sociology throughout. It shows the functional and dynamic world that we live in and the ways that all the different moving pieces work together perfectly. Highly recommend. (Watch Susan Cain’s amazing TED talk here: Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts)
Thoughts for reflection: How can I embrace who I am without feeling guilty or bad? What type of environment makes me feel most comfortable and loved? What parts of me are introverted and what parts are extroverted? How can I encourage others to be true to themselves in a conformist society?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Okay, I had to include this book because it is a classic read. Most people have read To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe in school for a class. For those that haven’t read, Harper Lee writes a book written from the perspective of a child named Scout about the struggles and perceptions of an unjust world. This book makes me feel childlike and more aware of the struggles within this world. For a child, Scout gives wisdom that we can all learn from. I think this book, published in 1960, can still give a powerful message to the society we live in today. Also, I have always had the biggest fictional crush on Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and the lawyer who fights for justice. Ahh.
Thoughts for reflection: What have I become okay with that Scout, a child, would even know is wrong? Is the world we are living in today actually any different than the corrupt world that Scout was in? How can we fight for and seek the Truth in this life?
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Nerdy confession: I had to read a few chapters of this for a First Year Seminar class and I actually fell in love with it and had to read the whole thing (which took me a day). Randy Pausch writes an autobiographical book of important advice for living. Dr. Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and had recently been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. A young professor with small children and a wife, Dr. Pausch pours wisdom into this book that I use and remember every day. And yes, it made me weep like a baby (and books don’t make me cry). Just read it. Circle, underline, highlight his advice, even rip pages out and hang them up on your mirror.
Thoughts for reflection: How can I start using the advice that Dr. Pausch shares? Am I being sincere to myself and to those around me? How can I love more deeply with the days I am given?
Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson
This book is one of my favorite of all time. I generally do not prefer fictional books, especially romantic fiction books, but this is different. This book makes me feel safe, loved, and hopeful. This is one of the first books I remember reading as a young girl (which is funny because it’s a James Patterson book… I have always been older than my age), and I think it holds some sentimental value because of this reason. I grab for this book when I need to escape this frightening, stressful world. It is so comforting. Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas is about the interwoven relationships of love, despair, happiness, hurt, and life. It moves to you Martha’s Vinyard to watch the lives of two playful personalities fall in harmonious synchrony. This book is a gentle reminder that the most beautiful things in life are sometimes greeted with pain and suffering.
Thoughts for reflection: If I was writing for someone, who would it be and what would I want to say? How can I invite the playfulness and simplicity into my life that Suzanne and Matt have in their own lives?
Well, there you have it! Five of my favorite books that I think everyone should read. Don’t just read them though, feel them, embrace them. Write about what you feel and think deeply about what the author is trying to give you. I am always welcoming book suggestions that I can curl up with and get lost in. What are some of your favorite books?
It’s a Sunday, and I am currently making French press coffee. I have at least 20 things I need to be doing (many of them including coursework and cleaning), but I ardently miss writing so I decided to stop in the midst of my endless to-do list and do something that I truly love. I decided to write.
One of my great ambitions in this life is to show people that they can be who they are without trying to gain acceptance of the world. Through interactions, words, and actions, I hope I can be a testament to the freeing, empowering, and abundant mercy that God can shed upon a life. I was once in desperate need of worldly acceptance and affection. I deeply desired the pursuit of a boy and shaped my values, ideas, and philosophy on how to attract the people that would accept me. My entire set of values were, at one point, conformed to the eyes of the sinful world we live in. I had very little self value and self respect. I wore things that were disrespectful to my body and to my Father, I said things that didn’t reflect the values that had been instilled in me by my parents, and I was a person that had been molded by the world. I cared very little of the qualities that are valuable to life. I desired not to be seen as a woman of character and depth, but I valued the superficial and artificial acceptance of others. I settled for the promises of society and once I achieved those things, I found them empty and I found myself unhappy. I didn’t value my mind or the gifts that God had given me. I valued the way I looked and presented myself. I didn’t see importance in generosity, altruism, equality, or love-fueled sacrifices. I was blind to the truly beautiful qualities in this world. I lived a life that was shallow. I say these personal things about myself because I think I can I relate to many, many other girls right now.
It is an unfortunate circumstance that our lives are consumed by social media. I know personally that Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat subject my own thoughts to comparison of others. We see the hand-painted, perfectly edited, and flawless versions of the lives that we “follow”, and we become vaguely self-aware of our own lives. In my opinion, this type of self-awareness is extraordinarily detrimental. We see perfectly slender bodies, flawlessly applied makeup, and seemingly unshakable relationships. We see the lives we desire and our own become a shade less exciting and important. We observe achievements and success in the lives of others and our own successes become less honorary. We are captivated by comparison and begin living a watered-down version of the beautiful, unique, and meaningful life that God has given us.
I connect these two anecdotal points by this: I see many girls that I feel are where I was many years ago. Trapped by beauty and aesthetic pleasure. In the constant need of affection and love from a boy. I see women with talent and intelligence and creativity abandon it all for superficial external satisfaction. I know that social media contributes to this (because I am a victim as well!), and I just hope and pray that these beautiful, strong women are saved like I was. It is a tiring life, trying to be everything that the girl beside you is. It is hurtful. It is full of disappointments. But I’m here to tell you it truly doesn’t have to be that way. I am a living example of this!
He restores. He gives purpose. He fills you with self-love. With a love deeper, wider, and more genuine than any love you have experienced before. He replaces your yearning for acceptance with a desire to make others feel accepted and loved. He restores self-worth, self-respect, and self-values. He has given you a spiritual gift. He has given you a calling in this life. Only in restoration will you see your value to the world. I once desired worldly acceptance.
I am now restored from these empty desires. After many years of being loved the way I was supposed to be and giving the love I was called to give, I have peace. I have purpose. I have talent. I lead a meaningful life because God has shown me what matters. Not only has He given me a unique talent, but He has paved the way for so many opportunities for me. He replaced my loneliness with abundant friends. He replaced my yearning with a satisfaction. He made me valuable, and I know He has done the same for so many others. You can be beautifully complex, incredibly valuable, and perpetually loved all by being the natural, authentic you. Someone much more important than me has made that promise.