Monday, April 25, 2011

Zen and the Art of Boards Studying

This is not a lotus tree (but is near Lagunita @ Stanford)

I’ve long had a problem with higher education. We learn a bunch of stuff that will be forgotten and that is never used in real life. At one time, I knew how to calculate the size of a footing for a foundation that would be required to support a building. Now I don’t. Why did I learn that? To get a piece of paper that let me go on to get another piece of paper that will finally let me learn a skill that I might actually use.

We like to describe learning as a pyramid, and the specialties as the apex, depending on all the blocks below. But it’s perfectly obvious that most people forget most of what they learned in college. And the same, it seems, will happen in medical school. It really doesn’t matter to patients that you know that Glyceraldehyde-3-P becomes 1,3 bis-phosphoglycerate in the process of glycolysis. Though I have to know that to pass a test, it is not relevant to patients (if you doubt this, ask your doctor next time you see them what the next step in glycolysis is after G3P).

This has frustrated me. I like spending my time doing productive things, and learning random molecule names is as far from productive as I could imagine. Studying for the USMLE Step I Board exam has been rather frustrating because much of it is this sort of brain-hammering.

But then I had an epiphany. I wished it had come while I was sitting under a lotus tree, because that would have been much cooler than sitting on a brown couch. But unfortunately I was sitting on a brown couch. Maybe lotus trees were the brown couches of India until a prince had an epiphany under one of them, and then they got cool. Anyways, the epiphany was this: I don’t matter.

Now this bothered me, but I realized the truth of it. It made me remember all the things that I just read in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and what I remembered of Ecclesiastes. Everything we do is ultimately in vain; all of it is as useless as ‘grasping for the wind’. Solomon explains that no matter how rich a person gets, or how great a kingdom he builds, he’s going to die and others will inherit everything. His legacy will eventually die, and he will be forgotten given enough time. What is man, then? No better than a dog. Both will have about the same impact on the world.

In my mind, I previously had a bright white line dividing the ‘useful’ from the ‘useless’ activities. But I realized that this line was imaginary. My actions were on a line. Near zero were actions that lasted a short time and had no echoes. Then there were actions of varying significances spread from “Being a good doctor,” lasting a few years (right around 40 years of significance) to things that mattered long after I died, “Ending extreme poverty” (reaching maybe 400 years of significance; we’ll assume the Great Intergalactic Famine of the year 2412 brings my work to naught). But then zoom out a bit so that you can see all of recorded human history. My 400 years are barely visible. Zoom out to 100,000 years and the greatest thing I could hope to accomplish with my life is invisible.

From God’s perspective, my power and my achievements are nothing; they were accomplished with gifts given to me by Him, and He could do all I could and more with just a word. This realization should be humbling. My works, great or small, don’t matter; only He matters. Before the brilliance of God, my bright white line of usefulness cannot even be made out.

The practice of doing things that will not matter is useful in keeping this perspective. My pride is very tricky, and is often able to persuade me that I matter, and that my ‘significant’ works are ultimately significant in themselves. But not even my great pride can succeed in persuading me that my memorizing what comes after G3P has significance. In memorizing minutiae, I draw close to God in humility. In doing meaningless work, there is an emptying of the self. And this is freeing.

I discovered this physically last year when I started what I thought to be a futile labor: digging up a road. I would spend hours per week just digging, with no real hope that I’d accomplish anything. I just dug to dig. And there was a freedom in this humiliation.

I realized that menial labor, mental or physical, can teach a person humility. Such labor is a good habit to build, particularly for those inclined to pride. 


  1. Not true - a man certainly does have an impact on the world, and God gives him this power to share his gifts with the world. In leaving behind any sort of legacy, a man's worth has been quantified, and history proceeds on his shoulders. Sure, it will not stand on his alone, but like a team of men are needed to row a large boat to get anywhere, the continued existence of mankind depends on the sometimes seemingly inconsequential individual sufferings of one man. Put together, though, the combined sufferings and efforts of many men drive the wheels of progress. While a man can be forgotten, many are not because of their contributions to others. We have not forgotten Solomon because he was recorded in the Bible and even though his body is long gone, his words and deeds continue to have the same power today as they did in the past and will in the future. So perhaps none of us will be recorded in any sort of history, but this should not be the purpose of our work. We work to share our God-granted gifts with the world, and let the world record whatever it sees fit.

  2. I've always read Ecclesiastes as a message not of the futility of man in being significant in a sense of comparison to God who no man can match, but rather a message that earthly pursuits absent a foundation of God being futile.

    If God's gift to one person is such that they may become wealthy to dedicate their lives to philanthropy, or if God's gift to another is for that person to become a doctor to heal patients, I don't see how accomplishments by these men whose foundations are inspired by God are insignificant. They are indeed significant, though they pale besides direct action by God. This significance comes from direction or inspiration by God.

  3. @Christian
    I don't see how adding up multiple meaningless lives would somehow make them meaningful. A summed series of meaninglessness is still meaningless.

    "This significance comes from direction or inspiration by God."
    Bingo. I think that's the solution to this meaning riddle. But I've omitted this from the body of the blog to maintain focus on the futility part by itself. The tragedy of Death and the futility it brings is a real and powerful reality. My epiphany was that I have spent too much time on the Resurrection side of the Gospel and not enough on the Crucifixion. I celebrate often, but rarely grieve. I have found in these activities described above, aids to self-emptying.

    Thanks for the comments!