Some days, it feels as if my body remains in Houston, but my mind is roaming elsewhere. On watching the gentle waves crash into the banks of Lake Como, slurping spicy ramen in the Tokyo train station, dancing around a fire in the moonlit Sahara, noticing the intricate details of Pujol. Why am I trying to live in past memories just to escape my normal life? What is my purpose? What was my old purpose? What am I even doing?
I can only think about these questions late at night. I must be alone. I need silence. My brain is usually on overdrive and the cool air of the isolated night allows me to hear myself. One of my favorite mental places is imagining I’m on a long flight (think greater than 13 hours). The cabin lights are off with everyone sleeping. There’s only one light on and that’s mine. My window shade is open. I feel like I’m floating above the frosted clouds that stretch to infinity. My eyes refocus and then I see the reflection of my weary eyes. I feel lost in all senses of the word.
Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be successful. For the son of immigrant parents, that success is usually paralleled with academic and therefore career success. Diligently, I received the dopamine rewards as I collected my diplomas — high school, undergrad, medical school, and recently, residency. In economics, there’s something called the Law of Diminishing Returns. There’s a similar principle in biology called tolerance. Now, the dopamine rewards on academic/career success aren’t as rewarding as they used to be. I came to Houston to be successful. On some level, that was a large portion of my purpose for a large majority of my life, but now I want a new purpose. I want something more.
I knew I was outgrowing my purpose towards the end of residency when I began to feel a lot of resentment for this career path. So many hours of studying. So many board exams that my family has literally lost track of them. So many sleepless nights spent in a hospital doing something I didn’t want to do living in a city I didn’t want to live in. So many years spent either not earning money or earning a barely livable wage, trying not to compare to my classmates/friends who are reaching a new level of wealth. I spent three years training (internal medicine residency) for a job (hospitalist or primary care provider) that I didn’t want, just so I could be eligible to become an oncologist. I needed to execute the actions of my old purpose so I could start fresh. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a privilege to have the responsibility and power to serve patients, but sometimes I am a regular twenty-nine-year-old whose purpose extends far beyond his career.
In all the books I’ve read, there are many authors and characters who question the concept of purpose. Jean Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea is a story in which the protagonist questions the purpose of his existence and if there’s any meaning to this world at all. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of purpose a lot over the past three months as it slowly sunk in that Nithya and I have to live in Houston for another three years. This has been daunting for me because I didn’t know how to continue living the life I was living while having an identity crisis. My purpose during residency was to make it to the next stage, but now I have achieved that. How do I find a new purpose?
It took all of those experiences away from medicine and the traditional career success-oriented mentality to help bring my lack of fulfillment to the surface. As I scroll through the photos of memories I described earlier, I can see myself aligning with the life I want to live. That life involves a purpose that extends beyond medicine. Purpose Sartre’s protagonist lacked. I want a life where I get to think about questions that matter, love and be loved, and experience moments that blur the boundary of reality and imagination. That’s my purpose for now, but I know that this will evolve as I mature and progress through life.
When I used to look out the airplane window at the horizon, I used to feel lost. Lost in what my purpose was and how my choices have led me here. But now, when my eyes focus on my reflection, I see my determined eyes, ready to live the life that I am meant to live.