The View from Here

At this point in the evening, I should be hunkered down in a corner of the library. I have nearly five hours of lecture to review, after all. The intricacies of Robertsonian translocations and the components of the cytoskeleton beckon.

I started medical school last Monday with nearly eight hours of lecture. A baptism by fire, as it were. The rest of the week followed in suit: mornings filled with lectures about transcription and translation and all that go wrong. Afternoons sometimes provided a respite, a chance to breathe amidst the inundation of new information.

With nearly fifteen hours devoted to activities related to my medical education, it became so easy to forget that I was a human being, that I loved literature and philosophy and poetry and art, that I existed outside of the confines of the medical school library.

“Medical student” at once absorbed the entirety of my identity.

Jean-Paul Sartre warned against such bad faith. As humans, he claimed, we possess the inescapable freedom to choose what route our lives take and what projects we pursue. This latitude carries a sense of obligation that can be altogether crushing and tempting to ignore.

Indeed, individuals might at times attempt to circumvent this burden of freedom and act in bad faith, as Sartre illustrates with a sycophantic café waiter who commits himself too fully to his role:

His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step a little too quick. His voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.

Paradoxically, this waiter uses his freedom to choose to actively deny that same freedom. In striving to embody the range of expectations held about waiters, he begins to negate what Sartre considers the “being” of our humanity: our freedom.

In talking with my faculty mentor earlier this afternoon, I was also reminded of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar, in which the 13.7 billion year lifespan of the Universe is plotted within 365 days.

If the Big Bang occurs at midnight on January 1st, our solar system is only formed on September 2nd and our species emerged a mere eight seconds ago on December 31st at 23:59:52.

The whole of one’s life–perhaps 80 years, if actuarial tables are to be trusted–lasts for 180 milliseconds on the Cosmic Calendar. The blink of an eye, meanwhile, is about 300 milliseconds in length. From this perspective, we cannot avoid seeing our existence here as ephemeral and each year of our lives as infinitesimal.

Surely I will encounter yet more fifteen-hour days in which I scarcely leave my desk. In so doing, however, I will recognize that I am consciously making a choice to pursue these long years of study, all of which are but the tiniest of footnotes in the grand expanse of the cosmos.

2 thoughts on “The View from Here”

  1. This is a post that makes one haltingly stop and ponder, for I like many others have had these musings especially when beginning a new, presumed desired program. It is reassuring that the author then realizes we are all but stardust and for the first week or two we readjust. In the midst of our occasionally onerous chosen tasks, we have thoughts that are but merely a ‘blip’, seen quickly passing by out of the corner of our eye and gone before we realize, for we have already moved far along.
    However, should these contemplations reoccur, then one may pause to review the quest at hand and ones place in this space in this space should be considered. Not until then though. For the goals chosen may be quite lofty, they are indeed also quite impressive and in the end, may be well worth the all the trials and tribulations in between.

    1. How poetic! Truly, we came from dust and to dust we shall return. In so doing, however, we each become a multitude, with the atoms that make up each structure in our bodies going on to form trees, bricks, and, indeed, stars.

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