Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Greatness

"You're amazing!" "You're so smart!" "Good for you!" "Congratulations!""You deserve it!"

I've gotten this a lot this last week. Not because I just started being amazing or smart, or because I actually did something important, but because a group of people out near Palo Alto said I was amazing. They did this in the form of an offer of acceptance to Stanford School of Medicine.

I can now brag (and so can my friends and family) about "being accepted to Stanford." I have achieved the very highest of Med School Applicant-dom; I am the greatest! But what is greatness? What is my greatness? What can be my boast?

The first thing to consider is that this acceptance is just a symbol. I have not actually done anything. The thing that changed was not that I accomplished something new, but that someone important recognized that I had accomplished something. I can't boast about another's opinion; it's not mine.

Nevertheless, the acceptance was caused by my accomplishments. All the hooplah might be indeed justified, if a few years late. But let's look at this closely. Why did I get an acceptance to Stanford? There are three main reasons:

#1 I had good enough numbers; i.e. I was smart enough.
#2 I had amazing extracurriculars. I started FISH.
#3 I had a great research experience. I got published.

#1 My smartness is not something I control. I was born smart; it was literally a gift of God. I can't rightly boast about something borrowed. "Hey guys, check out my Ferrari!" "When'd you get it?" "It's not mine, but aren't I cool?" Nevertheless, you could say that I put my smarts to good use by studying hard. Perhaps I could boast about my choice to use my talents.

#2 The story of the founding of FISH and its early years is one built upon miracles. 6 people agreeing to work towards something that none of us had ever done or even thought possible was the first. The second major miracle was the introduction to Dr. Tamez. One phone call to my friend, caused his friend's mother's church's deacon (who's a doctor) to call us and invite us immediately to a clinic, getting our foot in the door abroad. The third is our discovery of Maclovio Rojas. Armed with the information: "a town called Maclovio Rojas off the free road to Tecate needs help," we drove to Mexico, without almost any Spanish speaking ability. We ended the day with the keys to a clinic secured for the following week and an open invitation from the leadership of the community. Without any of those three events, FISH would be exactly what most other premed groups are: not impressive. And I'd be what most other premed officers are: not impressive. But God chose to perform these miracles in FISH. How can I brag about that? Sure, I worked hard, but it would have been for naught without the miracles.

#3 My research position was a gift from God. I was by no means the smartest or best researcher. I, an engineer, was picked up by a Pathologist, who decided he wanted to train me and bring me up as a scientist. He gave me a job I could actually do, throwing me right in the middle of the most promising collaboration he had going. And I got published. Good for me! Not really. I was faithful and did my job as best as I could, but the biggest and most impossible hurdle was getting the perfect position. I had no say in that. If anything I can only boast in doing my job.

So Stanford didn't get a brilliant, intrepid, innovative leader-scientist as they thought; they simply got a someone who God blessed and is blessing. I suppose it's all the same for them; they get blessed on account of me (like Pharaoh on account of Joseph). The bottom line for me is that, in each of these three critical areas, I don't have much that I can claim besides faithful work. Can I boast in that?

How did I even choose to work hard? My choice was an act of my will. If you're a scientist and a determinist, my 'will' is nothing more than an illusion, so nothing to boast about. If you're a Christian and anything but a Calvinist, my will itself is perhaps the most incomprehensible gift of God: freewill, independent action, is a divine attribute that we have the great privilege of sharing in. In essence, God has ceded part of His will to me, on loan until (or if) He wants it back. Until then, I can use it to make decisions about working hard or not.

So even the mechanism by which I make my decisions is borrowed. So can I rightly boast about it? My will acts before God; if I were to boast, it would be before Him. That is an exceedingly bad idea considering how often and grievous my errors are.

So what is left of my greatness? Nothing. It is, at best, only as the greatness of a mirror. I have no greatness in me, and the most I can ever hope to do is to cleanly reflect the brilliant glory of God. There is no other shape or form in which I can appear as brightly. While I cannot boast about my greatness, I can certainly boast about His.

Listen to the conclusion of the matter:
Praise God. Praise God for FISH. Praise God for his blessings in my research. Praise God for the mental talents he has bestowed on me. Praise God that someone saw it and has given me an opportunity; indeed, praise God that I was accepted to Stanford! But please, for the love of God, don't praise me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

I ran out of my interview at 3:50PM, tie and blazer flapping in the wind. The girl who offered me a ride to the airport (who just happened to have as perfect a face and as enchanting eyes as ever I have seen) texted me to say she would be late. Too late. And too bad for me.

I couldn't wait, so I grabbed my stuff from the admissions office and ran to the bus stop. I must have just missed the bus because I waited 15 minutes for the next one. I got on the bus and the girl called; the bus was moving right along, so I figured I'd be OK on time. I thanked her for her offer and hung up. As soon as I was disconnected, the bus hit traffic. After a slow mile of stop-and-go, it made it to the city and the traffic cleared up. The driver told me where I could catch the light rail and I got off where he indicated.

I headed briskly in the direction I was instructed, and made it just in time to see my train pulling away. I thought I'd just catch the next one. The trains come only every 20 minutes. As I made this mental calculation, I began running, stupidly like a baffled tourist, after the train. I knew it had frequent stops in the downtown region and I hoped I'd be able to catch it.

I ran hard. I'm not the most athletic of people, so my running/sprinting, carrying my luggage wearing full dress clothes and, more painfully, dress shoes, was rather tiresome. But I was able to maintain a good pace. The train stopped just across one last street, with the doors open, but traffic blocked me. I looked for the first break I could, and ran. I made it to the stopped train. I was winded, but relieved. But the doors were closed. The train started moving.

I ran after it again, this time being less careful with traffic, jaywalking and probably looking very silly. After five minutes of hard running, I saw the train stop 100 yards ahead. I kept running, but knew it was hopeless. Sure enough, as I approached, the train left.

I walked the rest of the way to the train stop. I panted and wheezed as I waited the long 20 minutes for the next train. I remembered then, in that moment, failing to catch my breath, that I had athletically induced asthma that is brought on by extreme exertion. Darn it. I took off my blazer and let the cold Portland wind dry my sweat.

I needed a red train. There were only three trains, red, blue and yellow, and I hoped maybe it would come earlier. I watched a blue train stop, and then go by. I watched a yellow train stop, and then go by. The next turned the corner, and I was anxious to get moving. I watched a blue train stop, and then go by.

The fourth train was red, and I found a nice corner of the train to settle down in. The train ride was a nice reprieve. I tried to relax, but the conversation across from me was too loud to ignore. It was a group of high school girls who must have been some kind of athletes; they talked about injuries to the musculo-skeletal system as I only hope I can learn to. It was rather relaxing overall, until a group of three homeless people got on the train, sat down around me. Two of them began publicly to display their affection to one another. The third talked of nothing to nobody; nobody listened attentively.

The train pulled up to the airport terminal. I grabbed my stuff and continued the race. Running through the terminal, I paused long enough to see that my flight was indeed ON TIME at Gate A6. Another runner beside pointed out the inevitability of this particular application of Murphy's Law. I thought how fortunate I was to have an A gate; I thought I was close. I ran to the security line, an undressed as they dictated. Belt, shoes, blazer, pockets, and a ziplock full of toiletries all were put into a plastic tub an run through the X-ray machine. It was 5:27; my flight left at 5:35. I might still have time! I put my belt in my shoes, grabbed the shoes, the blazer, and the bag and ran, sock-footed towards A6.

"You forgot your change," someone with good intentions, but no knowledge of how late I was, offered.

"Keep it!" I replied, with equally good intentions.

I saw the first terminal! Hooray! Wait, no. It was B1. There it is! No, that is B2-6. I kept running. The hallway turned. Escalators...stopped up by slow people. Stairs! I quickly learned that nylon socks don't have grip on plastic stairs, and scrambled down as quickly as I could without getting killed. A1. A2. More running. A6! A plane outside with the stairs down! But where is the boarding information? Where's the attendant?

I asked where my flight was. The person working behind the counter told me she was not working. I asked another. She sounded sorry, and told me how sorry she was. "I'm so sorry," she said, "The flight must have left already."

I looked at the clock. 5:29. "I've got 5 minutes!" I insisted.

She didn't seem to believe that my affirmation of having 5 minutes would have any power in recalling the departed plane. "They must on the runway already."

For the first time, I saw the humor of my situation. I joked, "So I could still catch them on the tarmac?"

She didn't see the humor in my situation. "No... I'm sorry." She looked sympathetic. "You really tried hard!" I laughed. "Can I change your flight to 8:35?"

I sighed and agreed. I collapsed in an uncomfortable airport chair and didn't move. My attendant typed away at the keyboard arranging my new flight plan.

"There goes Oakland," said another attendant.

"I thought it left already?" said the one helping me.

I looked over at the plane I had seen. The door was still open! I got up, grabbed my bag and started for the gate. Immediately, the door was shut and the plane taxied away. I could have caught them on the tarmac. My silly joke was now a cruel irony.

"I'm sorry," my attendant said again.

She finished re-booking me and gave me my ticket. "Could you recommend anywhere to eat?" I asked. "I've got a few hours to kill."

"Stanford's has a great happy hour. You should head over there!" she replied, happy to be able to tell me good news.

I walked over to Stanford's on the other side of the airport. I found a table in the bar, looked at the happy hour menu and started getting really hungry. Running like a crazy man really works up an appetite. Earlier in the day, the medical school I interviewed at had the infinite generosity to provide me with a sandwich as a reimbursement for my two days, my hotel room, and my flight. To compound this, I had accidentally grabbed a veggie sandwich. Needless to say, I was hungry. I decided on a Caesar salad ($3) and a big bowl of soup ($2) to go with my drink. I was tempted to drink away my sorrows, but decided raspberry iced tea was a more prudent (and tasty) choice.

The waitress came and asked with a hint of sympathy, "How are ya?" I must have looked as I felt: exhausted.

I sighed and thought about the proper responses to the question. "Good" would have been most appropriate, but, "OK" was as optimistic a response as I could muster.

"Just OK?" she asked.

"Ya. Just OK. I just missed a bus, which made me miss my train, which made me miss my plane."

She decided to repeat my attendant's sentiments, "I'm sorry," and proceeded to the part I was really interested in: "What'll you have?"

The clouds were parting!

My mouth watered. "Let me start with an iced tea!" I said with a renewed vigor.

The sun broke through!

"If you want happy hour prices, you'd better order now; you've only got 2 minutes!" she recommended.

A glimmer of hope...

Another waiter, who must have known what kind of a day I was having, intent on making my day as bad as was in his power, said evily and with sinister malice, "The computer's not taking happy hour orders anymore."

Was crushed without mercy!

"Should I bring you a dinner menu?"


Monday, March 3, 2008

Really Free Thought

I wrote the following and submitted it to the Daily Bruin Viewpoint section on Thursday, February 28. It was not published.

Reading the article by Ms. McGough entitled "Class doesn't preach, stresses the literary," on February 27, I really started thinking about the state of affairs at UCLA. The article discussed a class I was enrolled in about the Bible as literature. The professor has asked us to assume, for the sake of the class, that the Bible, "…was written by human beings in a specific historical context for human-driven purposes."

I have been successful at adopting that assumption and have done rather well in the course. I am a Christian, and I affirm that the Bible was written by humans who were inspired and guided by God; taking on a contradictory assumption has been an intriguing experience, particularly because of my familiar with the text before the class.

As a religious person, I took it upon myself to seriously investigate another viewpoint; I have chosen to think and argue like an Atheist in my papers for the course. I can read the Bible as an Atheist reads the Bible. I can argue like an Atheist. And I can do it well enough to get A's in a UCLA English course that demands it. I have done this so that I can better understand Atheists.

Thinking from another's perspective is something that I have always striven to do; it shocked me to realize that my efforts were rare enough to be newsworthy.

We like to think of ourselves as open-minded and free-thinking. We speak often of the virtue of tolerance and the goal of coexistence. I hate tolerance and I reject the notion of coexistence.

Tolerance has come to mean a cessation of fighting and an end to disagreement by means of disengagement. We can accept that those people believe differently, and we have made it our goal not to do them violence. I have not been tolerant of Atheist views of the Bible; I have become an Atheist. I have not coexisted near them; I have lived with them.

It is tragic that we have settled for tolerance and not sought understanding. We ought to do the work of engaging with others' ideas and learning exactly what it is they think. And it is hard work. It hard to honestly get to, "We agree to disagree;" it requires that you understand the other, and know precisely where and why you disagree.

Christians, have you ever thought about the world like an Atheist? Have you ever considered the vast age of the universe and the unstoppable march of the blind watchmaker, Evolution, by means of the Selfish Gene? Muslims, have you ever meditated on the wonderful love of God in his sacrifice of His incarnated Son? Atheists, have you ever stood in awe of the beautiful sunset, a precious gift from an almighty and loving Father to you?

Have you ever cared enough about another group of people to do this seriously? I'm not talking about a 5-minute thought experiment, but a serious engagement with another viewpoint. Have you ever really immersed yourself in another's worldview?

This is free thought. Coexistence is fine for warring tribes to settle on, but for the future intellectual leaders of this world, we can do better. As leaders, we should contend for intellectual integration and fight against "tolerant" attempts to keep ideas separate but equal. We ought to be an epicenter of liberal thinking and intellectual understanding. We should be open-minded enough to actually and truly open our minds to others' beliefs.
I hope that one day such intellectual maturity will be so commonplace that it will be unworthy of the front page.