Today I held a human brain in my hands. It weighs about four pounds, slightly pink, squishy, and dense—just like you’d expect from the movies. We removed it from our cadaver, who we’d christened Agatha because we were never provided anything but her age and cause of death. Before we reached the pearl, though, we had to crack the oyster. Our professor presented our two grisly choices: bone saw or bone chisel? We selected the former, which was essentially your everyday chopping device with the word “bone” tacked on the front. And off we went into the bony orb that holds so much, with such nonchalance that I began to question what the hell kind of person I was becoming.
“Whoa,” I’d told my lab group. “Shouldn’t we say a few words or something? I mean, this is her face here. People used to recognize that face. She used to smile with it.”
My comments, of course, went unheeded. Not, as I must point out, because my lab group members are heartless, cold scientists. The field of medicine is like any other: a business. There are procedures you follow to achieve certain ends, and in medicine, emotion is not a part of the procedure. In fact, emotion can get in the way of what is at stake, particularly when it comes to cutting into some body.
So, while my team members were sawing and hammering at Agatha’s skull, I sat back. This body was someone—maybe not anymore, but once. She had lips and hair, fingernails painted dark, dark blue. This brain worked for Agatha her entire life, and here we were in our lives, making use of the parts she no longer needed.
Before long I succumbed to the joking, the poking, casual words exchanged over Agatha’s exposed parts. I made cuts, removed the top of her skull—skin and hair attached—and then her brain. Because what else can you do? We all have a purpose in life, and each of them has certain rules of the game. To win at anything, you have to play by them.
Different people are cut out for different endeavors. For instance, I don’t have a competitive bone in my body, and things like team sports have never been my friend. Other people are artists, and they might be horrified at the dry science and anatomy of medical school. At first, I felt like I fell into such a category. All my life I’ve been a writer, a wanderer, a yogi. And yet I was keenly aware of the underpinnings of human functioning, the intricate pathways that made our amazing machinery operate, and I was fascinated by the ways it could go wrong. But when I started medical school this year, the two sides of me didn’t want to meet. It felt like I was trying to lead two lives at once: one was scientific, rigorously pursuing logical explanations for phenomena that the other life, the yogi, felt and experienced.
Every person is looking for the same things in life—fulfillment, answers—but in different ways. The yogi seeks transcendence, liberation from the external stimuli to understand the patterns of existence. A doctor pursues scientific explanation for how things work, and understanding on such a minute scale the details of human functioning allows a doctor insights into the bigger picture—why we’re here, why we act the way we do. One is a top-down approach, where the other is bottom-up: two means to the same end.
We can’t fight who we are, and we can’t fight destiny. I come from a legacy of physicians, and for the longest time I resisted falling in line with the rest of the family. I wanted to be an artist, to be different. I scoffed at their reductivist views of life and the world. But after taking the year after graduation to travel the world, write, and teach yoga, I realized there was something more that was calling, another layer to my purpose, and the longer I waited, the harder it was to ignore. I was meant to be a doctor, and I realized that having an art-loving yogi inside my white coat would only add to the potentials afforded by either field alone.
I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult. Medical school is so busy that I find myself desperate for time to exercise my creative passions, and every day I am surrounded by types who are quite different from those that I am used to surrounding myself with. It is a strong lesson for me to appreciate the nuances of the medical field and the very different sorts of people who are attracted to it, all while maintaining my own distinct identity. But despite the setbacks, being the oddball has proven to be a boon.
In that frigid anatomy lab, with gloved hands trembling and the stench of formaldehyde a thick cloud overhead, I took hold of the scalpel and looked Agatha dead in the face. I made an incision here, one more there, and with a little help from my friends retracted Agatha’s brain from her skull. The artist was there, though, so much so that the whole time I was handling Agatha’s brain my own was shouting reassurances at me, coaching me to breathe deep and slow and not to stop.
Throughout the cool callousness and analysis, the artist in me is able to tap into the bigger picture behind all the parts, pathways, labels, and medical jargon to realize that it’s all part of a greater effort. Day by day, through the collective efforts of different individuals in their different roles, we fill in the picture of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and why we’re here in the first place. We play our roles to keep moving forward, toward that light at the end of the tunnel that some call God. When a road block arises—say, a brain—you take a deep breath and remove it. You may be revolted, but gradually you grow accustomed to the change. Poke it, appreciate it, and learn from it. Give thanks for the path you are on, and keep heading forward. In our own ways, it’s what we are all meant to do.