The Doctor With a Thousand Faces
The basement of the Lamont Library at Harvard is a dismal place. I always imagined the facilities of the nation’s most prestigious university to be pristine, state-of-the-art monuments to human advancement. But like so many things in the academic world, the reality is filled with seventies wood-paneled furniture, black dust, and the accumulated residue of students’ tears. Along the walls squat wooden cubicles, pale yellow finish decayed to grey from scratches that lacerate every surface. To the credit of Harvard students, I have thus far found not a single phallus etched into the soft wood, though the initials of students long gone stare back at me from the walls.
This is the place I have chosen to work on my medical school applications. When I have unpleasant work to do, I am drawn to the aura of stress and oppressive silence found in these academic torture chambers. I take comforting schadenfreude in the harried faces of hung-over undergrads trying to cram for exams. The more studious pupils absorbed in textbooks and 24/7 lo fi hip hop streams provide accountability when my fingers inevitably lead me to Reddit or Facebook.
Moreover, I have come to realize that the feeling I seek amidst centuries old stacks of Harper’s Magazine is a lost sense of solidarity. It is a feeling that I can now only simulate; the reality is that I no longer share very much at all with these students. I no longer have exams, I no longer read textbooks, I no longer go to lectures. I go to work each day and then come home to an apartment populated not by friends but by acquaintances. I earn money and with it have taken on the miserable tedium of budgeting. Students are characters in a linear story that moves them ever in the direction of a bright postgraduate future, and I am only part of the backdrop.
Indeed, the student’s life is one of narrative. College has all the makings of a traditional story: the wide-eyed beginning of freshman year, disillusionment and despair in the middle, then the fundamental growth of character leading up to the cathartic denouement of graduation. Or at least, that’s the story that a four-year program tries to formulate, and based on countless graduation Facebook posts, it is one that many students want to tell the world.
But after graduating, this facade of story is harder to believe in. Such linearity becomes lost in the regular grind of a 40 hour work week; the weekdays blend one into one another, and the weekend stretches bleakly in its open possibility. Perhaps this is why travel becomes such a priority for recent graduates. A trip, with its discrete embarking and disembarking is easy to integrate into the stories you tell yourself.
If student life is movie-like in its structure, then working life is rather more like a sitcom. There are episodic periods of tension and release, but I often feel that the overarching thread has been lost, like a show that has run a few seasons too many. I guess that says more about sitcoms than it does about life; sitcoms are by design specifically not coming-of-age stories, the point is that the character exist eternally, forever performing their hijinks even long after the show is over and the actors have died.
And yet the writing of a personal statement demands that I construct a single myth for the fragmented episodes of my life. A daunting task, but thankfully, I’m not alone in this endeavour. Like how George Lucas carefully studied the work of Joseph Campbell, I’ve developed what I call the Medical Monomyth.
The Medical Monomyth goes as such: the aspiring med student has always had a deep, abiding, completely altruistic passion for helping people. Perhaps it manifested in volunteerism or raising starving animals or some other acceptably benign pursuit. They probably had a positive medical role model, most often a parent or other family member (talk about social reproduction!). From here there’s two different paths the Monomyth can follow: either they relentlessly pursued this life of service, culminating in this very personal statement, or they went astray at some point, but through some life changing medicine-adjacent experience realized that their true calling was the practice of medicine. Faced with their GPA, test scores, and absolutely pure beneficence of spirit, an admissions committee has no choice but to admit them.
Searching for example personal statements, I stumbled upon a particularly saccharine essay held up as a paragon of excellence by a pre-med prep company. It narrates in masturbatory detail an episode in which the writer holds the hand of a young homeless child who sheds tears of gratitude for the home the writer is helping to build. This singular experience, stemming from the writer’s supernova-like outpouring of altruism convinces them that they were destined to become a doctor from the moment of birth, and that all the various branching forks of their life converged upon the inevitable future reception of their long white coat.
Perhaps I am only so cynical and dismissive of stories like this because I fear my own powers of self-mythologization (as ironic as that might be, considering that you’re reading this on a personal blog). It’s inevitable that the stories I tell about myself will be in some ways untrue; I will sharpen my strengths, smooth over my faults, leave out the unruly textures that constitute lived experience. And horrifyingly, I know that if I repeat these to myself enough times, I’ll believe them.
The truth is that the varying paths of my life did not converge upon medicine. I could easily have become a programmer, a musician, a (you laugh) writer, and indeed at various times I felt convinced that those would be my future. Medicine was a choice among equals, a fork in the road like any other.
So what will become of those paths that I did not take, if I refuse to acknowledge their existence? I can already see the weeds sprouting between pavement crumbling slowly to gravel. In my future lie eighty to one-hundred hour work weeks, which will leave little time for garden tending.
It has been unseasonably warm these first few weeks of January, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I was promised that the temperatures would drop into the negatives over the winter, and I wait eagerly for that, if for no reason other than to have a complaint for my southern friends. But yet the South seems to have followed me to New England, coaxing joggers and dog-walkers back onto the streets. It will reach nearly seventy degrees in the afternoon, a reckless insurrection against the domination of Winter. I can hear the grumble of skateboard wheels against pavement. There’s an ice cream shop in Harvard Square that I had meant to try during the summer, but calorie-consciousness and then cooler weather kept me from its doors.
This is all to say, it’s far too nice out to choose the inside of a library.