I recently had a conversation with a friend on the steps of my apartment building. It was late and we had just finished studying, and in our exhaustion were susceptible to philosophical musings. We talked about keeping an open mind, whether I should put “pathologist” back on my list of potential careers, and why these decisions are hard to make. The future was tangible, full of choices and opportunities. But as our energy waned, we ended with: “We are like ants. We run around trying to save each other because we think it’s noble. And then we will all die.” Not an original metaphor, but still apt: the microscopic scurrying, the cosmic insignificance.
That feeling of being so small that it does not matter — it can be disabling, if you let it catch you. As a child, I used to lie in bed wondering whether I existed, and was sure I did not. My stomach was heavy with the conviction that even if (a big if), I was lying in my bed at that moment, it would not be for long. Death would take me. When my sister was 9, she asked me, “Tasha, am I alive? I think I’m in a dream.” I’m not sure whether to blame genes or a morbid environment, but I knew just what she was talking about.
This is no way to live life, whatever that is. I reassured my sister, and I try to do the same for myself. I’ve prayed, but religion has failed me, or I’ve failed it. Perhaps if I were less rational, I could believe in God; if I were more, I wouldn’t care so much — as it is, I’m stuck envying those comforted by prayer. The easiest way to forget about my mortality is to keep some part of me running — my body, as I’m late to class; my brain, as it battles to put facts in boxes. It’s harder to have an existential crisis when you’re worried about failing your next test.
Strange thing, then, that I decided to become a doctor. As a doctor, it’s hard to escape death. It’s there in lecture, a cut away on the operating table, stained on the hospital walls. How will I face it, day after day? I can’t know for sure. Here’s what I’m hoping: that it will give me purpose, and that my scurrying will be useful. That helping others fight death, or gracefully accede to it, will teach me to seek, rather than fear, the quiet, unembattled moments. That I will learn to be present, and at peace. That I will be a noble ant.