The novelty of danger 

13 Jul

“Good morning, my name is Potato.”

He approached with a warm and courteous handshake, with the ability to instantly make a foreigner feel at ease, free from the burden of neither subconsciously flaunting our wealth or holding back the aura of ignorance we undoubtedly were guilty of. Burdens incomparable to the daily struggles of the locals, yet undeniably significant to the pitiful westerner. On countless occasions sticking out like a sore thumb was inevitable. We couldn’t be mistaken for a local even from afar, we smelt of foreigners and left a trail; often finding ourselves swamped by hopeful villagers armed with the tangible prospect of a greater profit for their homegrown fruit and vegetables.

Potato descended from a family of farmers, with a name and degree in agriculture to suit. He had broken away from the fertile fields to face the fierce rapids of the Zambezi. Rafting the Zambezi was a riveting experience, the perfect dose of adventure fuelled by the edge of danger and unpredictability of each rapid – surrendering to the mercy of the unfathomable strength of nature. How truly dangerous it was remains a mystery, perhaps it was a carefully crafted show with the illusion of danger, or else the stories of people being swallowed into whirlpools and losing limbs to the lurking crocodiles had an element of truth. Let it remain unknown, the experience subject to the truths I choose to be reality and objective reality somewhat irrelevant to my story.

Although white water rafting was what we had signed up for, the descent to the gorge came as an unexpected shock to the body and mind. It was a winding steep descent requiring careful selection of the most stable rock on which to step, scarcely scattered with ladders made of logs that required every muscle and every fibre of concentration to avoid a dangerous slip. I entrusted my life with Potato, surprisingly without fear, whose helping hand was undeterred by what to me felt like death drop. Although making it to the raft was in itself a victory, the true adventure was yet to begin.

We faced the first rapid with apprehension, on the surface seemingly knowing we were safe, yet surprised when we emerged from the waters in one piece. The second rapid threw one of us off, separating him from us within seconds. By the last rapid we were unwary of its force, nonchalantly engaged in conversation interrupted only by the water hitting us head on. Occasionally we would jump into the waters, signalled by Potato, to feel the power of the rapid and let it submerge us in all its glory. Swimming in open water brings with it an overwhelming sense of freedom, much like releasing a caged bird. A paradoxical feeling of empowerment, yet powerless against the forces of nature.

The experience was woven by the sense of togetherness; facing each rapid together, hiking back up bouncing off the energy of one another and the unbreakable bonds of siblings. We are a force when we are together.

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Are we the cause of our own destruction?

13 Jul

Featured image

Fundamentally we too are animals. Observing animals in the comfort of the wilderness was both exhilarating and humbling. Having been gifted with higher executive function, both a gift and a curse, we may one day be the cause of our own destruction.

The man-made entities of the western world can be all consuming – being swept away by the pressures of exams and succeeding, however success is defined, belittling the enormity of the world beyond. Having acclimatised to the competitive environment of medical school during the longest and toughest year, redefining what survival of the fittest really means came like an oasis in the desert; a refreshing reminder.

Tickets were booked the day before and I had landed into the depths of the natural world before I could reap the rewards of freedom. One thing had become apparent following these exams: I was my own limiting factor. I had to take myself out of my comfort zone to be able to portray myself in the best light in any environment.
Having to hunt for survival is the ultimate intrinsic motivation. The cheetah; calm, composed and the patience to do justice to the intricacies of foresight needed for the kill. The elegance of each movement was a treat for the onlooker, the spotted coat the epitome of natural beauty. It was a sight to behold; the focus of the leopard on the unknowing herd of impalas with a journey of giraffe emerging from the trees on the backdrop of a setting sun.
Journey of giraffe join the party
Safari jeeps flocked to the scene, each adding to the commotion and tense atmosphere – wanting a view but with each extra jeep reducing the chances of the impeding hunt. We humans are not part of this ecosystem, yet we convince ourselves we help rather than hinder the species with which we share this planet.

‘Travel gives you the raw material, but it’s stillness that gives you the meaning’.

After writing this post, I watched a youtube video of a conversation shared by Pico Iyer and Oprah Winfrey. The truth he highlighted resonated with me and underlies what my post attempts to capture. We yearn to travel, to find ourselves and to find meaning – as if the fleeting moments disconnected from our own realities will bring with it insight and inspiration.

Having returned from a trip of a lifetime, I ruminated on how I wished to store the trip in my memory, how I wished to give it meaning. How could my new experiences change my perspective? I let stillness guide me. The result is this post, and the one that follows it.


There was no kill that evening, but the suspense and the endless possibilities in the imagination of those watching were in themselves endearing. The leopard had no performance anxiety – and it will await the next opportunity, the next hunt, where success isn’t just something to aspire towards but a necessity to survive. The leopard had no internal limiting factor.
The elephants passed by the lodge, undeterred by human presence, and exerting authority over their land. Ruthless with tusks to pierce any obstacle, paired with a powerful trunk. Meanwhile, the lions were unafraid to punch well above their weight, unafraid to fail and try again repeatedly, albeit somewhat impulsive with the lack of foresight displayed by the leopards.

We humans, perhaps unlike other animals, are gifted with the ability to choose our qualities, and these choices define us.

Mental wellness is more than the absence of mental illness

24 Nov

Well-being week was the first of its kind at our university; with the week fast approaching I could not contain the excitement of sharing my passion with the rest of the student body.

In medicine we are fixated on pathology, and rightly so; we are healers of suffering. But how do we flourish? What do we need for lasting well-being, how do we enrich our lives with meaning. And what does it truly mean to be happy?

If there was one thing that encompasses the components of what I truly regard as the essence of my being it would be this. Sharing this journey with my best friend  was what made the experience one I will treasure – the moments that mean the most mean nothing unless shared.

The idea was a week centred around positive psychology – talks on resilience and post traumatic growth, the neuroscience of mindfulness, the authentic self and meaning. We also enriched the week with yoga workshops and a gratitude wall – encouraging people to live in gratitude and lead compassionate lives.

Aside from the fear of disappointment when all your cumulative efforts end in a poor turn out, I shut out the belittling voice that would feel smug when things went wrong – which I noticed was only really present when I felt really invested in the outcome. It really mattered to me that we gave all that we could and the end result was one I would be proud of. Yet the feeling of accomplishment was so much greater when preceded with doubt and feelings I normally associate with negativity.

Things I learned:

1. Adversity is not something to strive for. A previous blog post concludes the opposite but it is possible to learn resilience. Although undeniably pain is real, suffering may be optional. Perhaps we can equip ourselves for the skills not only to bounce back from a setback, but to not perceive it as a hardship at all.

2. Being aware of your emotions and focussing your mind does not suppress emotion but allows you to experience them more intently, and then let them go. An emotion can only hold you back when it is followed by a ruminating thought. You can be the master of your mind.

3. We are all looking for a purpose. But to find this we have to find our drive – the feeling that makes us feel alive. What we do to create meaning is just a means towards that feeling. Delve into your authentic self.

4. This has always been something I strive towards – leading a life of compassion and gratitude. Finding out what people felt gratitude for was a humbling and inspiring experience. There is nothing too small or too big.

This week I found and harnessed the feeling I live for – inner peace. I strive for positive connection and resonating with those around me brings me closer to the feeling that brings me meaning.

He who saw through my invisibility cloak

1 Jul

I’ve grown up wondering why my grandmother, a maths teacher in Sri Lanka, always had a mob of students following her movements who spoke of their undying gratitude. There’s an old proverb in my language, that places your parents and teacher,  your guru, above God. In a nation in which belief comes as naturally as breathing the significance of this is understated. Being familiar with such a culture, yet living in one in whom your teachers are merely facilitators of your education, I couldn’t quite understand why teachers are idolised. To be quite honest, the most I admired my primary school teachers was the way they would dunk biscuits in their tea.

When I started secondary school I met Dr Gray, who came across as an eccentric and enthusiastic chemistry teacher. Somehow on his first lesson at our school we managed to set the lab on fire – even that didn’t scare him off. A male teacher going into a secondary school of adolescent girls is bravery in itself. Being an adolescent who stayed out of trouble whose comfort zone was being lost in the background, and an impossible Asian name, to most teachers I was the studious child who was a ‘pleasure to teach’. I came out of my shell later on, but to Dr Gray I was never invisible. This proved to be the catalyst for your average introvert to blossom. Taking an interest in his students beyond his call of duty trumped his wit, knowledge on just about everything, and his passion for chemistry that set him apart as a remarkable teacher.

He taught me of dedication and showed me the rewards of finding your vocation. I used to want more for him – a partner, a family of his own and a life beyond the walls of the school. In hindsight, having met his family and now with a greater picture of his life before I knew him, he is a man whose distinct character was known by all that knew him and his job was one that gave him contentment. His choices were ones that kept him fulfilled and happy.

When I found out he had weeks to live, I sent an email of gratitude. I had not known the impact he had had on my life till it was in words and he was there lying in a coffin.

He told me to ‘remember the good things’, he is what I miss from school life. Having a mentor that knows you so well before you are left to sink or swim in higher education, and furthermore the real world – there it is again, that dreaded invisibility.

I can now make a name for myself, I know who I am. But he knew the introverted kid when I was still figuring it out, and for that I will always be grateful.

 

‘You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes;
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression, forgetting
themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.’

W.H. Auden

 

Rest in peace Dr Gray, you will be missed.

Meeting the victim who killed

23 Jun

I’m someone who believes we are defined by the choices we make. I choose to take responsibility and accountability for my choices, rather than letting life happen to me. This being said, our choices are influenced by our past experiences and the people we surround ourselves with, whether by choice or the role models we were given at birth. What we see is merely our perspective of reality through a filter laden with biases and heuristics.

A decision that ultimately leads to injustice cannot be put down to a split second judgement; it may be the result of a troubled past and series of bad decisions that ultimately define us. I’ve found it hard to make peace and find forgiveness for those who commit acts that I believe are immoral; rape, murder, abuse. I’ve also been blessed with strong role models and a nurturing upbringing, for which my gratitude is immeasurable. I’ve been undeniably protected from the harsh realities of the world we live in, much like an unborn child encapsulated within the safe haven of the womb, but this week I met a woman who had been imprisoned for manslaughter for 6 years.

She spoke of growing up as a troublesome adolescent, and her battle with heroin and cocaine at a tender age. Her behavioural issues made her a nightmare to try and reach out to, and in the depth of her darkest moments her lack of self worth was terrifying for me listening to her story. She had turned to the promise of saviour in suicide, and resented every part of her being. What struck me about this experience was just how human and insightful she was, and that despite how deep she had fallen into the depth of despair, she had found redemption.

She was bitter about the unlucky hand she had been dealt in life. She knew the person she once was, and the person who she could be. My preconceived notions of a murderer didn’t quite fit. I couldn’t put her into the box that justified my ability to be intolerant of those that commit unimaginable crimes.

I had met her in a medium security psychiatric hospital and she had made a transformation on drugs and therapy as a victim of borderline personality disorder. That was my realisation; she was a victim. Can mental health be accountable for the choices she had made? Possibly. I don’t believe that the immoral nature of the act itself changes given such a state, but the ability to be in control of her choices was not a liberty she could exercise. Is that not injustice?

I believe in the transformative power of hope. Many of those in prison, this woman included, are subject to unfathomable seclusion without the strength of someone that wants to see them change. And this is why I want to be a psychiatrist. Anybody can have transformation if we create the space for that to happen.

The days after meeting this woman who had killed, I was battling with my own emotions. What did I think of her, and how does this define me?

A TED talk by Shaka Senghor provided perspective and insight, and this was his plea: ‘Envision a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their past. Where misdeeds and mistakes doesn’t define you for the rest of your life’.

I believe in transformation.

Kaleidoscope

28 Apr

‘We get to know people by picking a few small clues and processing it all through a neural filter laden with our own personal biases – we rely on our minds to fill in the blanks of their identity. But who the people in our lives really are, their essence, that’s in their brain not ours. The reality is we can never really know who they are, but we can arm ourselves with what we know to be true; our feelings’.

Somehow my daily dosage of an episode of perception always relates back to my psychology revision, I’ve even convinced myself it’s revision. Eccentric schizophrenic solving crimes for the FBI, whilst teaching you about the wonders of our brains, can’t argue with that. Today the episode resonated with me on so many levels, coinciding with a harsh lesson I’ve been finding hard to swallow.

Who are the people we think we know? We create these identities of the people closest to us, and most of the time there isn’t a discrepancy – the people we think they are matches up to the people they portray through their actions. But there are people who always fall short of the people we want them to be. Their words and actions never fail to prove us wrong, and yet we don’t let that break the mould we created for them.

Refusing to give up on the person I think they are is the truth, but to be completely honest, I don’t think I ever will. The pain that I’ve felt is beyond something concrete – the inevitable consequences of actions, the echoes of words spoken that cannot be undone. It’s the pain of being proven wrong when you believe in the version of someone you so desperately want them to be. And in hindsight, that’s what I always remember – the hurt that is only within my perception of reality and my version of events, but undoubtedly the most real part of my being – feeling.

A for adversity

18 Mar

I’ve always wanted to be someone with a strong work ethic, someone who embraces adversity that leads to success. I remember watching my father study for his second degree after long days at work, with the ambitious yet real prospect of a comfortable lifestyle for his family. What I remember is minimal in the face of the stories I’d heard of his struggle. The truth of hardship feels so concrete to me. But today I find myself working at 2.30am purely to prove to myself that I am capable of it, to give myself the right for this to define me.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in these last few months. A lot. So much that I find my mind needing the occasional break to brainstorm nail polish colours to recuperate. I’m sure this is what it’s like in the shoes of your average 20-something figuring out what life means to them.

The more I become aware of what I truly want from life, the less I’m motivated by achievement. In this stage of my life, midway through a 6 year degree, achievement has revolved around academia. The truth is, I’ve been in education my entire life and doing well brings a sense of validation. Of course it does – I’ve been operating on the schema that an A is the goal, F is for failure. But what is the motivation behind doing well in an exam that doesn’t speak of my ability to be a good doctor? This perspective is paradoxical – I need to do well to become that doctor. Or is it that academic achievement is what will play to my strengths in the eyes of those who pass judgement. Being a good doctor can only be the truth when validated by those that I encounter.

Goals that channel my true desires will bring with it work ethic. But I haven’t quite reached that stage, so the motivation to jump these hurdles: the anticipation of the time I can bring my focus to what matters the most.