2018: a year in retrospection

31 December 2018

Song: “Saturn” by Sleeping at Last
Book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
Article: “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception” by Maria Lugones

 

a year in retrospect: what I am thinking of on this New Year’s Eve.

Three-hundred sixty hundred days ago, on New Year’s Eve, I checked into a quiet hostel in the wintry of Southern France—without a plan for the next year but merely to continue my pursuit of conversation. I decided to seek conversations at the intersection of religious, cultural beliefs towards organ donation // to probe the catch-22s of people between the imperatives of saving lives and preserving their body/integrity/soul.

If you ask me what I learned from these hundreds of conversations, I’ll say organ donation reflects the priorities of our values, generosity, and spirituality. I’ll point towards legislative systems, PR campaigns, and medical infrastructures. I’ll ramble on ethical issues. I’ll say its country, community, and then individual-dependent. And then, I’ll likely pause and say, I am not sure, there’s so much more to learn. I hope my answer changes with the years, as it has evolved, reformed over the past months. One realization remains unbridled: “How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist” (see “Saturn” above).

The bulk of 2018 I have the enormous gift and privilege of spending abroad — traveling solo and exploring organ donation in Europe and North Africa; the last quarter was more settled but one for which I am as grateful. I moved unexpectedly to Minnesota for an amazing opportunity to continue my exploration of bioethical questions (though from haphazardly decorated a cubicle), and focused on a longstanding, longwinded dream to become a physician.

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I spent most of the year embroiled in questions, and I believe so for the following retrospections:

  • I was distant from social associations, that usually defined me and set expectations for my behavior and actions, by being alone in countries or states unfamiliar;
  • I lived and remained immersed among difference; these contrasts forced me to question where my values and identity grew;
  • I was in between what seemed like preordained chapters of my life: a sort of displacement that comes with moving away from the structure of academia (which I imagined to remain within well into my thirties (i.e., so is necessary of a doctor to be)) and into a freeform life where optionality seems both immense and limited; and,
  • My Watson project and future employment are inherently question-oriented (e.g., do you want to be an organ donor? Is so and so biomedical technology ethical?).

In having less structured, more flexible time and triggered by days I wish to keep guarded, I often found myself thinking of the following: Do I know who I am? Do I want to be someone different? Will I live to be ordinary or could I be extraordinary?  Does it matter? Are my dreams too ambitious or withheld? From where do I derive my self-esteem? Am I as superficial as my social media appearance? With whom do I feel at ease? What is meaningful in my life? Do I already have these answers, or am I dissatisfied with them? In some ways, these overwhelming questions are best summarized by: Am I happy?

When I was younger, I once imagined that a day would come when life, love, and dreams all made sense. I saw myself, proud and mature, smiling in full-beaming confidence, radiating happiness as bright as the Pakistani summer sun. The older I get, I realize that the questions of privilege, suffering, and equity remain unanswered. Infinite happiness seems ever elusive.

This past year and in all of its nostalgia, when I think of my happiest, most fulfilled moments, I find them within conversations — ones in which my thoughts stream freely but shaped by the rocks and pebbles, ones in which I could listen without thinking, listen to the words, stories, and dreams of another. I think of the voices I can no longer recall, the wind by the ocean of a Moroccan beach, the song of waves in Zadar, the cold stone of la vielle ville, the smiles of friends under the night sky. And under the night sky, when I lie awake, in the familiarity of Massachusetts, in temporary of Minnesota, I think of when I feel at ease when the warmth and lightness of happiness sneak in – I think of moments, pictured or rendered to memories, of wonder:

  • The familiar smile of a friend, yesterday a stranger, on New Year’s Day.
  • Rolling fields of a farm, punctuated by a silo and then a well-loved home.
  • A conversation that disorients me linguistically, technically in a hospital ward.
  • Climbing metal fences under a moonlit sky by the shadows of an abandoned monastery.
  • The giggles of children amid the bustle of a Saturday farmer’s market.
  • The jostling of a wooden bridge at a seaport smelling of pickled herring.
  • The coldness of a car roof on which I sat, stargazing at the universe above a Midwest cornfield.
  • And so on…

In the arbitrary but global time of self-reflection/auditing, I’ll probably aim for the usual: read more, travel more, worry less, exercise more, and sleep just about the same.
Instead of only thinking of doing more/the same/less, I think of a friend, in a book club on the Tao of Pooh, who shared how getting off the wrong bus stop and finding herself in a new neighborhood of her childhood and current town brought her to wonder.

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I hope 2019 is a year of wonder — a year to marvel at this carrying body of mine, the unprecedented of others, the subtle small and formative few moments, and the spontaneity of the unexpected. I wish to find myself each day in wonder — whether it be in conversation or nature, wordless but confronting. I hope, by opening myself up to wonder, it will help soften my heart towards myself and parts of me that still need to grow, as well as to the brilliance and faults of another. I hope this wonder will help make room to for me learn in humility; to love not perfection but the chance to be better; to delve into the challenging questions of the future (e.g., health, climate change, tolerance, equity, borders, what humans are to become); to be at home with myself.

I have the impression that wonder is an unintentional experience. Instead of leaving wonder as a lofty expectation, I look to this past year. My moments of wonder usually came as a surprise or through an unassuming tangent of a day, and often followed by the self-questioning of “why not?” Embodying openness whether when plans fell through or following up with someone for coffee when a first impression didn’t quite catch on led to some of my fondest memories.

How do I plan to cultivate wonder? I haven’t got it planned out, but here are a few things I did in 2018 which, in reflection, brought me to experiences of wonder. I hope to do these in the future:

  1. Have a conversation with whomever. In January, I booked a bus ticket on a Thursday night for a spontaneous day trip the next morning to Annecy, France. I was walking around alone when I happened to pass by a bewildered looking old French lady. An old lady and I became friends over our desire to help an ailing pigeon. We walked for a few hours around Annency before I had to catch my bus. During our conversation, she articulated her concern that bioethics (my current occupation) is just an interesting conversation for academics to have in the comfort of their institution, and away from the realities of lay peoples’ lives. I, limited in French, told her that was interesting, but think about it often from the confines of my cubicle.
  2. Try something new, even if you may not be good at it. In June, I decided to surf over one week. Unsurprisingly, I was bad at it even with the excuse that I was on antibiotics. While I did manage to stand up by the end of the week on my surfboard (i.e., out of fear of my increasingly impatient, but determined instructor), that week gave me perspective (e.g., don’t disrespect the ocean or you will feel empathetic to clothes in a washer machine). I met some incredible people, learned a few life lessons, and left feeling with a humbled ego.
  3. When plans fall through, fail fantastically. One of the biggest reasons why 2018 turned out unexpectedly is that I had to resort to a lot of Plan Cs and Ds. Most of the time, things worked out for the better, and especially when I prioritized optimistic thinking and accepted that Plan A or B was no longer an option. For example, after being away from home and my little sister, I really wanted to stay in Massachusetts. Not landing my top choice job in Boston enabled me to take a call a few days later for an incredible one in Rochester, MN.
  4. Being comfortable with being wrong (albeit not complacent). Not holding strongly to my opinions, listening with the intent to confront my predispositions and view, and seeking contrarian perspectives were all necessary commitments given I was traveling. But also, I am human and am usually wrong despite the confidence I might exude in declaring an answer. Those said commitments also allow my worldview to evolve and feel more secure (e.g., I try not to derive my self-worth from how many times I’m right about something but how much I can learn/improve. I think I was led to believe the opposite by the value placed on grades/GPA/scores).
  5. Giving myself perspective. Reminding myself how beautiful the world is and how many more good people than bad live in it made me more willing to recognize beauty/love/joy during my day, even when I felt profound lonely or distrusting. Practicing humility and embodying gratefulness grounds me in the objective reality that this life (the people sharing it with me, included) is filled with more magnificence that I often allow myself to see/feel/know. Recognizing the spectrality of emotions (e.g., rather than the duality) helps me experience wonders in between the extremes of happiness/sadness or banal/wonderful. So does embracing the mutual occurrence of emotions (e.g., happy and sad simultaneously). While everything may seem performative, a little perspective helped me enjoy what was working for me.

I’m sure wonder comes in many different forms and ways other than the ways that I listed. I’m confident that the embroiling questions that occupy my mind will remain unresolved well past December 31st, 2019. I think that’s to be expected of eternal mysteries, unlimited to the shortness of a lifetime. I’m looking forward to what answers I’ll think of next year and if I have the privilege, the decades after. 

I wrote this piece to help me think through some things, but I hope that by sharing it, you (i..e., my close friend, an acquaintance from 6 years ago, or social media stranger) could also benefit. I would love to hear your thoughts/ideas, if you differ or concur. 

I hope you have a new year full of light, love, and wonder, inshAllah. Thanks for reading!

P.S. Just for fun, here is a bunch of videos the PC’s Photos App put together in a nostalgic video. Also sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t use “What a wonderful world” as the soundtrack. Send me your “year in review” post/story if you have one, so I can live vicariously through you in the freezing cold of Minnesota!

 

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