Well into my twenties, I've found that the idea that we can go through life just doing what makes us happy is not the whole story. How anyone thought that happiness was the appropriate litmus test to determine a fulfilling career is beyond me. While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I'd been involved in a student organization that gave me satisfaction––I'd toiled blood sweat and tears for it, all the while happy, then had come out the other side wondering what it was all for. Happiness? On the flip side, going into medical school was one of the most ridiculously masochistic things I'd ever done in my life. I'd never worked for something so hard, never felt so hopeless, never felt like wanting to quit every single day of my life until going through medical school. Only to find myself nearing the end of my formal schooling quite relieved that I hadn't thrown in the towel. I was very rarely happy, but I'm glad I did it.
Even in medicine, my days are filled with routine. Yes, the work I do is dynamic, but all people fall into routines regardless of their career paths. We get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. Then, we go at it again. It's not wrong to do this. I grew up being fed a myth that growing up meant being able to live life with selfish hedonism. I now find that it's a ridiculous model. Still, with routine, there's a tendency to fall into a pattern of doing things for the sake of getting them done. Where do we end up? What do we achieve? Are we fated to become what Japanese call a salaryman?–a peon in the workforce, uninspired, unmotivated, unthinking, unfeeling. Maybe I'm thinking about this because the coronavirus threatens to end life abruptly. I'm thinking about what I have to show for living out nearly three decades of life.
I thought that the existentialist dread of having to make a life altering decision had been dealt with after I decided on what I wanted to do with my life. What personality did I have? What are my values? What career suited me best? What did I want to accomplish? Who did I want to become? What I didn't understand is that the answers to these questions may change at different points in life. (Living through a pandemic, for example, being a very definitive point in a person's existence.) The reason is quite clear: people change. I am no exception. I have lunch with friends who I haven't seen in nearly a decade, and am taken aback at how different they look. I'm surprised at people with whom the only common ground we now share is the fact that we had common ground in the past. So these life altering questions– What personality did I have? What are my values? What career suited me best? What did I want to accomplish? Who did I want to become? –are part of an ongoing process of my own change. These days, I find myself stepping back and wondering how I got here. Am I the problem or is my environment the problem? Is the work I do stimulating? Does my work allow me to grow professionally? What do I want?
Allowing ourselves the leeway to step back and ask difficult question–especially the ones that may derail us from our well laid out tracks is necessary if we want to continue living a fulfilling life. It's got nothing to do with routine, but the inability to confront the idea that the answers to your questions may well take you away from your current life and into an entirely new one. And maybe that's what's so dangerous about this idea of a salaryman–they are the type of people to accept that they must stay the course, and in no circumstance stray.
I suppose, we are all given the option to stray. But how much courage it takes to do so! Ah, but what is so terribly wrong with straying from the path especially when death may be knocking on my door tomorrow (thanks coronavirus)? Whoever said life was meant to be linear anyway?
P.S. I realize how privileged I am to be afforded the option of thinking this way–of having existentialist dilemmas in the middle of a pandemic. And maybe that's exactly the point–I'm so privileged. I find myself wondering more than ever: am I using my privilege properly?
I'm in my final months of medical school, and I spend my nights ramping up for the board exams. For the first time in five years, I'll be home for more than a month long stretch. You'd think I'd enjoy the experience more than I do.
After spending the day attending online classes, and reading textbooks, my dad and I have a drink in the kitchen. I've recently identified the fumes of his cigarettes as the scent of my childhood. Every time he smokes, I'm reminded that he's more likely to get infected with the coronavirus than if he didn't. As anyone who has a smoking Asian parent knows, telling them off doesn't do anything.
"If we get the virus," he says suddenly, "will the hospital you study in take us?"
I don't answer immediately. It's a trick question: the system in my country operates on money and power. We have neither. I say: "they will if there's room." Which is the official statement.
What my dad means to ask is: if any of us contract the virus, will the system you've gone through protect you?
He then shows me an article about advance directives. I shrink a couple of feet and feel like a child again. I want to say that we don't have to worry about that yet, but who am I kidding? Death is playing his own Russian roulette game throughout the city, and who knows which door he'll knock on next.
I don't mind dying. I've accepted it. It's a hazard of my profession. But I don't want to bury my dead. I didn't spend five years away from everyone I cared about just for their lives to end like that.
But who am I kidding? When did death ever listen to the living?
grasping each ladder
rung, climbing into
of making today go away.
In desperation, we
grope for it in
the dark: a branch,
a railing, a hand to hold.
Trip over these
go into each one of them
cold, then out of them
half a breathe's span, a
gasp of air (barely any),
then deep diving
thirty feet down again.
It's all real, you see? And
soon, it'll all be over.