Tuesday, October 31, 2006

the sum of all fears.

Last semester, one of our neuroscience professors threw us a question: “What is man’s greatest fear?” If you hadn’t previously read the self-instructional module she had given earlier, you wouldn’t have easily guessed the answer.

And yet it turned out to be so simple, such that most of us were surprised at our wits’ end.

Celebrating this annual scarefest perhaps brings out the bottom line in each one of us: Whether we admit it or not, we have our own fears. It’s something we just can’t do without since fear is part of our psyche, one of man’s most basic emotions. And while humans generally share the same set of nightmares – seldom do we find someone taking pleasure in meeting ghosts, for example – the trend is said to vary throughout one’s lifetime: Children are more accustomed to develop fantasy fears (monsters, ghouls, etc.) while teens are expectedly more preoccupied with social fears (non-acceptance in a group, etc).

These days, with burgeoning advances in psychology and related fields, the vocabulary has even grown to include all sorts of common and newly-coined -phobia terms ranging from arachnophobia, fear of spiders; to xenophobia, fear of foreigners, each named after a certain thing or object that supposedly triggers the anticipation of doomsday in a person. Think of the most absurd thing to be afraid of, and most probably someone out there is indeed afraid of it.

Something once struck me as an irony, though. Why is it that most of us enjoy watching horror flicks at the expense of screaming at the top of one’s lungs and nonstop hand-covering-the-eyes gestures? Freud’s followers recently discovered the answer for this: We don’t enjoy the fear itself, per se; but it is in the aftershock, the wave of relief we experience after that “fearful” moment where we get to have the genuinely gratifying feeling – both for having gone through the time of dread and for that time of dread itself to be over. It just shows to say that conquering one’s fear is surely a satisfying reward, but where do we actually start?

I read somewhere that the key is to face your fear squarely. It’s all about initially trying to identify the emotion and afterwards dealing head-on with it. The first time you encounter the object of trepidation, you ask yourself: “What is it in that object that scares me?” and then, you try to figure it out introspectively, step by step, addressing each issue with an appropriate action. Upon crossing paths with the same object the next time around, your instincts would then be able to react in a more sensible manner. Over time, you become rational enough to have gotten rid of the fear element.

Back then, I used to have a fear of failure: failure to meet the expectations of people around me and ultimately, those of my own. But throughout the course of time, I eventually discovered that failure may be a good thing in itself, after all. It can make you emerge a better person, teaching you lessons that can be gained via a failed attempt alone. To be honest, sometimes I even remember concepts better when they come out as mistakes in exams (wishing of course that I’m not wont to repeating them over and over again.) It’s the case of standing up if you fall, and of putting in mind not to fall the same way again.

It also helped that I found consolation in an adage that said, “Today is the tomorrow you’ve worried about yesterday.” The saying stuck in my head for a while and I realized, how true. There’s really no point in being overly anxious unless it’s justifiable for a number of reasons. But even then, one can always do something about it, something much more than just crying over spilt milk. Hopefully in the future, through giving the intrapersonal process of fear elimination a good shot, I’ll be able to finally dispose of my fears once and for all.

By the way, what is man’s greatest fear?

Falling down.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

twilight zone.

With the sunset around, I think I’ll always have my muse.

There seems to be something
about the way things subside:
a slow and sluggish yielding
of the day into night. And we
struggle with our senses, lest
the spectacle before us disappears
out of sight, a keepsake

of the moment. It almost seemed
so easy to think it would last
forever: a hushed, haunting ritual.
The rustle of trees, the hum of crickets.
The rays seeping shyly
into each lilting leaf, each branch
swaying gently into night, towards night.

We are held speechless, bathed
in golden splendor that was not ours
to keep – some seaside evanescence
detaching us from reality.
But this is not Manila Bay, and we
are not lovers walking straight
into the sunset. If only we could hinder

the decay of dusk into that vanishing point,
the surrender of beauty, the transition of
manifold things into dark. All the while struck
by how order resists meaning: That final and
sententious deluge of light. The day returns
everything, the formless, into place. And there’s
no use wishing how the past could be relived –

I am alone, you are alone,
the pangs of regret unwillingly
rushing back as all before.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

the future beckons.

Question #1: What is an antioxidant?

Question #2: How could excessive intake of aspartame a.k.a. Nutrasweet® be harmful?

Question #3: Upon entering a ward, which of the following should you do first: check for breathing, temperature or pulse?

We had a late Moon Festival celebration/dice game cum extended family gathering last Monday evening, and all I expected to do was to have some jolly good old clean fun. Never did I imagine that in the short run of two hours or so I would find myself pelted with all sorts of medical questions ranging from the simple to the bizarre.

I guess things like these always come with the fact that everyone looks up to a medical student – never mind that he is only in his first year – as some sort of budding yet know-it-all doctor-to-be. It’s definitely something to be proud of; yet one cannot also help but feel the pressure mount year after year, as the time left before acquiring the prized M.D. title diminishes faster than you can say “schizophrenia.”

Nothing really beats the exaggerated anticipation you get from people around, prodding you on to study fast and graduate even faster so that they could rush in line to be your first patients (never mind the lack of experience). This is perfectly fine with me; though whenever I’m faced with this kind of situation I’d simply smile and coolly remark, “There’s still a long way to go”. Almost immediately, they’d give a cheerful reply: “But oh no – there’s only four years left to go, see?”

Indeed, their light-hearted optimism may be right. When you’re studying medicine preparing for exams week after week, burning midnight candles and consuming books with indescribable voracity, you just don’t notice the time passing that easily. All you see before you is the insistent need to at least obtain satisfactory grades and get a backstage pass to the next year level. Somehow, it is only during breaks that you are able to get a real foothold of time’s fleeting existence. Half a year from now and I would have to change ‘four remaining years’ to three-and-a-half, then to three, and so on. Each time, I’d wonder in amazement how I managed to survive what others termed as the most drastic of pressures, replete with emotional potholes, mental roadblocks, physical exhaustion – the list just goes longer as one climbs the rungs of the caducean ladder.

It doesn’t end there. In fact, many doctors would tell you that after graduation, you are merely getting yourself started – the beginning of a lifetime of healing and more learning. During a recent get-together with high school classmates I casually joked that should we meet again after a few more years, some would’ve already brought along spouses and babies, swapping stories of the workplace, and I’d still be studying. You don’t master the whole anatomy thing overnight; it takes years of repetitive study to make sure you have firmly grasped the concepts and their practical applications.

Yet if there’s a side to the profession that some people might not readily understand, it’s that you don’t only deal with drugs and diseases, though these of course constitute your primary concentration. You also try establishing rapport with your patients, connecting with them, nurturing their humanness – while at the same time meticulously planning your every move lest one minor error earns you an unwanted malpractice suit. You grapple with finding the best vernacular term that comes closest to “cerebellar ataxia” at the same time running a differential diagnosis inside your head.

So goes the truism that doctors are amazing multi-taskers, and that’s what cuts them off from the rest. You attempt several things at once, and you have to make sure you’re fast. I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed a CPR being performed on a critical patient inside a PGH ward. The moment the red signal went off, doctors and residents in the vicinity dropped whatever they were doing, rushed towards the bed and began performing the necessary lifesaving measures. I was only a spectator, but needless to say I felt an unexplained sense of urgency, and I don’t think there ever was better evidence to the fragility of human life.

I know I won’t be able to carry out everything impeccably on the first try. It’d take years of experience to do that, without getting reasonably demented. For the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with answering simple “aspartame” and “antioxidant” questions, without being too technical. And of course, all the while keeping a healthy love for what I’m doing.

The passion stays.

It’s just a matter of time.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

storms of our lives.

(I know this is a little late, but after a long hiatus from blogging and another hiatus from academic stuff, I figured it would perhaps be timely if I break my silence with a recollection of the not-so-distant past – and what more significant event to talk about than the recent ‘millennial’ storm?)

When you’ve just come home after a long exam and you got another one coming up, anticipating a days-long blackout would perhaps be the last thing on your mind. But when it suddenly strikes and you discover that the next best thing to do is to wait, you also realize that it’s not the end of the world, after all.

In a nutshell, the onslaught of super-typhoon Milenyo could be summed up in the words of famed writer Charles Dickens himself: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Sure, many of us, hard hit, were at our worst states physically, emotionally and mentally during what almost came close to the actual apocalyptic event, but needless to say the deluge also brought out the best in us – our ingenuity and resourcefulness, showcasing the best of man at work in his time of dire need.

As for me, I didn’t even have the slightest idea that a typhoon was coming at hand. All that’s racing inside my already spent mind that late rainy afternoon was the grim fact that one night is all that’s standing between me and pages of exam material plus a still-to-be-assembled jigsaw puzzle of research substance. And then a text brigade heralding the good news (“No class”) would just have to come so casually, so abruptly it left me overwhelmingly ambivalent, not knowing that the day after I would be greeted by a stretch of empty darkness and the not-so-pleasant howl of a roaring gale whipping up a tumult outside. The time for vigilance had arrived.

Milenyo’s rampage was also the time to take a break, to reflect on those aspects of life that had long been overshadowed by what I thought were more important matters concerning academics and an eventual career. Over breakfast, lunch and supper by candlelight – and in between as well – I found out that I finally had the spare time to assess things concerning the way I was living my life, my relationships, and most importantly, my spirituality – the crisp shattering of glass and the dull thud of flying iron sheets serving as an uncanny backdrop, making one feel very much at the mercy of God. And then it suddenly dawned on me: In this life, there will be many more Milenyos to zap you back to the world of reality, making you see the essentials when you almost thought there’s nothing else to it than the same old boring routine of everyday.

That’s how I thought things officially went, but even in its aftermath, Milenyo seemed to have left other tricks up its sleeve. While some would agree that having no electricity is somewhat okay, few (if ever any at all) would readily think through the prospect of having no water – an inevitable consequence for most of us who rely day and night on the whirr of the motor to keep our tank constantly filled. Thus when the dreaded day came, I felt like someone thrust into a brand new reality show ala “Survivor” where they nastily get to eliminate your necessities one by one. Fortunately, we had some emergency supply of water - but when are these going to last?

Still, I reckoned even bigger problems lie ahead. The day after the huge outburst, Manila was a deforestation scheme in the making. One can only be amused at the sight of cars playing “patintero” all over the streets, ever so carefully dodging one or another fallen tree or lamppost, precariousness always rolled in between. Nevertheless, pity and regret entered the picture as one beheld the sight of an almost century-old tree, torn from the roots with its branches grotesquely snapped. Here, Joyce Kilmer’s lines sting with the acerbity of a grapefruit: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” How true – for it would take decades or so before another majestic product of nature can be seen standing proud once again. One more message hard earned: Enjoy the things while they’re still there.

But the trees that they are, I believe they stood for something much larger than themselves. Passing rows of felled robust trees now only good enough to stoke fire, it was almost unbelievable to see the smaller and less mighty ones still standing, most especially the fabled coconut which appeared to be relatively unaffected by the atmospheric surge, a true testament to the supposed pliancy and resiliency of the “tree for all seasons.” It struck me that sometimes, playing low-key’s the key. It is better for one to be flexible, to stoop down and harmlessly go with the tides rather than to uselessly battle it out with a stubborn foe.

For Milenyo had no preconceptions when it struck: It was unmindful of who we are, of where we stand, of how we will deal with the consequences. We had electricity three days after the storm, but my aunt’s driver already had power in his abode that very same stormy night. So it goes with saying that while some remote, relatively shabby parts of the metropolis rejoiced over the quick restoration of a normal, functional life, many areas in plush Makati and Ortigas continued to pass the time with fingers anxiously crossed.

Things like these will make you wonder how fate intriguingly tips the scales from time to time, as if giving evidence to the whole story of life as a wheel. But whatever the case may be, I’m quite sure Milenyo will forever leave me feeling a lot more fortunate than before. I’m pretty thankful that a humongous billboard or Ministop sign didn’t crash right smack into our car, and that rainwater didn’t flood into our dwelling, and that we were spared the extra agony of an extended vacation in the dark with a depleted water supply. Bereft of petty material indulgences, it taught me to concentrate on prioritizing and conserving the things I really need. For citizens of the alleged SMS capital of the world, this surely entails down-cutting measures in texting especially when one has nowhere left to recharge one’s phone.

Almost a month after having our nerves tested with one of nature’s powerful elements, we continue to read in the papers stories of the extraordinary kind, stories of faith, hope, courage and bravery; of heroism and of mankind’s intense will to survive whatever the odds; stories that will continue to inspire each and every one of us, a seeming reaffirmation that wherever destiny brings us, there still remain in this life things worth living for.

Which leads me to ponder that perhaps, sometimes, all we’ll ever need is a storm.