I have always had a certain sense of calm when traveling. Even though the chaos of trying to catch the right flight or train or bus can be overwhelming, once you are actually in transit everything magically falls into place. Even if it is just for a few moments, there can be an immense feeling of comfort and security. Time seems to stand still for those few minutes or hours. Nobody knows exactly where you are and, just for a little while you can forget every other sense responsibility
When I was growing up in New York City, my daily subway rides to school were a way for me to steal some extra moments to simply close my eyes and rest before the chaos of another school day began. I was grateful for the lack of responsibility in that moment. I could simply be. I didn't have to think about or do anything that I didn't want to.
For as long as I can remember, my direction in life has always been a linear path towards a logical destination. Ever since I was a little kid my goal in life has been to be a doctor. I have always been busy staying at the top of my class and planning ahead for that future. I went from a competitive high school to a prestigious college and then straight to medical school. It was during medical school that I noticed that I wasn’t happy following that path anymore. I was progressively getting more cynical and bitter. I could no longer sympathize with patients, and I was getting easily irritated when I talked to family and friends.
Part of me began to question why I was struggling and trying to make it to the end of medical school, the next step in a pre-programmed plan. I couldn't seem to justify pushing myself further into such a demanding field when I felt so conflicted. Medical school became a frustrating journey to nowhere. I was lost and I didn't know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.
I was going through the motions of studying, taking tests and examining patients but my heart wasn't in it. I started resent of everyone who had ever encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor. I started to resent everyone who couldn’t understand my unhappiness and tried to comfort me with their naïve glorified view of what it was to be a doctor.
Finally I asked myself: how am I going to take care of sick patients when I couldn't even take care of myself? Who was going to take care of me if I decided to devote myself to the service of others? The answer that came to me was that I had to take responsibility for my own happiness. I could feel the pressure getting to me more and more by the day and I knew that if not today then tomorrow, my frustration would reach a crisis point and I would completely abandon this pursuit that I had devoted my entire life to.
The only solution I could think was to take a break and find the way back to my happiness. Taking a step back and experiencing something completely different would release me from the repetitive mundane motions of everyday life. I took a leave of absence from school and made plans to travel. I hoped to once again experience that sense of calm that comes from being in transit.
My first stop in my travels was Laredo, Texas where I studied border medicine at the US-Mexico border. In Laredo, I experienced a completely new world. I was introduced to a unique combination of Southern culture and Mexican culture all at once. As the only female medical student joining a group of male preventive medicine residents, I also felt transported time of chivalry. I was away from all my family and friends but the group of residents and the program coordinators always took care of me and made sure I was doing okay. I appreciated being taken care of in a way that I never thought I would. My strong streak of independence was still alive but I couldn't help but be touched by genuine concern and care I experienced from everyone there. Every day I woke up to a new adventure. One day we would visit the local health department to learn about the unique diseases prevalent on the border. Another day we would go to a private ranch to learn about herbal medicine. Other days we would wade through the Rio Grande to test its waters for bacteria.
On my plane ride back home from Texas, I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh's Answers from the Heart, and he wrote something that resonated profoundly with me at that moment. "In order to make another person happy, you have to be happy yourself. So there's a link between doing and being. If you don't succeed in being, you can't succeed in doing. If you don't feel that you're on the right path, happiness isn’t possible. This is true for everyone; if you don't know where you're going, you suffer."
I still don't know where I am going or what my new direction in life is but as Hanh explains, all that matters is that you feel like you are on the right path to your destination. By living my life according to what makes me happy, I feel that I am much closer to getting to that right direction than I was a few months ago. Before I went to Texas, I was living the mundane ordinary life of a medical student. I was studying for an endless line of exams and working at the hospital at all hours of the day. After spending a month in Laredo, I was truly happy with my life. I was no longer simply on a linear path, blindly trying to make it to the end. I was now filled with a sense of freedom and happiness that I never expected to feel ever again. While I have that sense of purpose, not only can I imagine gladly taking care of patients and becoming an excellent physician, but I can see myself turning into the type of person that I've always aspired to be: happy, optimistic and able to live in the moment.