On My Decision to Pursue Medical School… 4 June 2012
I’ve trained myself to expect the worst. To steel my skin and harden my tendons for rejection because, if I don’t, then I will hurt. Because: I’m soft and pink as a crustacean who was born without a shell, or the good sense to run from the nets (because why would someone be trying to hurt me?). My roommate sometimes makes fun of me; I’m a crier. She can’t quite fathom how those tiny, traitorous molecules of salt and water—and every little creature of hope and hurt that’s been hiding in my belly button, aching for release—coalesce so easily, so quickly. Sensitivity: it makes one look a bit foolish in movie theaters. And in public. And in general. I like to think of myself as a superior specimen with heightened serotonin levels (because that’s what all the latest psychology research urges me to believe) but the truth is: it’s harder to verbalize emotion, to pack a feeling into just one word. It’s a complex system with moving parts.
Sophomore year in college, I went in to talk to my Sacred Hindu Texts professor. I stood by his door, clearing my throat, mentally rehearsing my polite yet firm yet unassuming speech that I had practiced in the mirror and on my walk over. I readied myself to defend why I was applying for this scholarship—deep down I didn’t feel like I had a chance at winning so perhaps I was a bit embarrassed to ask—and I readied myself for him to say that he has so much on his plate, sorry. But instead, in a voice so kind it could turn dandelion to puff, he said he’d be honored to write my recommendation. Not glad or happy but honored. When any one teacher understands the power of words, recognizes that their opinions percolate thoroughly through every layer of our brains, leaving indelible, powerful footprints in our minds—and then chooses to hold that power in the palm of their hand as one holds a small, tiny, delicate thing, like a lacewing or a baby earthworm—the effect is breathtaking. I left his office scoffing at my past anxiety: he was my professor, of course he said yes! what was I expecting anyways, a reprimand for applying for a scholarship?
Still, those stubborn tears began to form because there was something else. It was that moment when you go out in the world and you feel so alone—you’ve imagined being in this position of adulthood, and of having to fight your way or defend and explain yourself because you’re untrained, small, obscure—and then suddenly, unexpectedly, you stumble upon kindness. And this kindness is visceral. It catches at the back of your throat, trickles down your esophagus and makes your heart just. Stop. Fill with rich, vermillion blood. Oxygen. Life. It’s a breathless feeling to encounter kindness, like that feeling I had when I climbed the Colorado Springs Incline, stood at the top of that mountain, in shock that I succeeded, every cell in my body celebrating, cheering, chanting with the other climbers: can’t you see that we’re infinity? On my way out of my Professor’s office, the school chapel began ringing and the sun took on the gentle patina of memory and sacredness. It reminded me of the many moments in my life when I felt small and scared and had braced myself for a hit but instead found warmth and love.
It is in these moments that I understand why this body had been made so sensitive, why my neurons have learned to fire at even the slightest blip in my environment or the most tepid provocation. I suddenly am aware of how young I am but also how ancient I am. Call it reincarnation or a human legacy sewn into our genetic code, but we are truly made of infinity. Even thought we are trained to fear the worst, to expect our regrets to turn ghosts and sink their nettled claws into our ankles everywhere we walk, their bones jangling like chains to remind us we could have done so much better, we must realize that our regrets aren’t made of infinity. It’s the hope, the instinct to survive, and the compulsion to tell our stories that are eternal. Instead of finding shame and guilt, or a reason to hide in our caves, or to stuff our secrets and weirdness deeper down into our suitcases, we will always find this strange magic, this humanity floating in the air like pollen, iridescent no matter what season or what century.
That is why I cried. That is why I cry. It is always that moments—in stories or in real life—when we reach our hands into the darkness expecting monsters, wiry hairs of a spider, fear, rejection, anger wearing the mask of loved ones, the miasma of failure clinging to our skin—that we find a new dream instead, a new hope, words to express the apple-cinnamon warmth that singes and surges and dances through our bloodstreams. I didn’t win the scholarship but it’s clear to me what I found in its place: the immense potential of kindness.
And now, here I stand, at the beginning of a new decision, a rewiring of my identity, a rewriting of my life’s path. I say: I want to be a writer and a physician. I’ll admit I’ve visualized my success but, just as readily, I’ve seen the choking of one gift for another; like twin fetuses, what if one takes the blood of the other? I’ve shielded myself for the damning words that held me back in the past: your sensitivity makes you a weak doctor, you are not steady-handed enough, and what of your squeamishness of intense sensory information like death and pain and needles? can you really shoulder such a great mantle of responsibility? can you face the mortality of a patient? of yourself? can you face being wrong and the price being another’s health, vitality, life?
Yet how can I deny myself what I believe in most deeply? In the training and practice and discipline that has gotten me to where I am and will see me through the future? In the unexpected kindness of people and life and choices? In the fact that, even when you expect pain and setbacks (which do come, and must come, I’ll admit) that somehow the story unfolds like silk—catching on branches and tearing and staining—but also shimmering in the sunlight, the moonlight, the starlight, the cloudlight. All I want out of this journey is to find unexpected kindness, and to give my kindness in return, to the people who need it the most, in the way I know best: through the art of science and the wisdom of caring for our bodies (so inextricably intertwined with our souls).
So let the stars fall where they may. The story will unfold as it wants to and who am I to do anything but record it?
Meha (pronounced may-ha) Semwal is a rising junior at the College of William & Mary, majoring in Neuroscience. Her name means raincloud in Hindi. She is an avid tennis player and lover of primates, puns, chocolate, quirks, Hindu philosophy, Psychology Today and rain. She hopes to become a doctor (endocrinologist) and a writer (poet, novelist). In three words: William Carlos Williams.