Recently, I stumbled back on a piece of poetry that made me think about the idea of a postponed dream. The poem is from Langston Hughe’s Harlem and I had previously totally forgot about it. It goes like this:
"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"
For me, a dream deferred is the gap year of medical school, a time of simultaneous reflection and activity, studying and pondering, contemplating and thinking about regrets and hopes for the years to come. Even when you try to avoid it, thinking about postponing another year is a painful, gut-wrenching personal dialogue that never ceases to entangle itself with your personal self-worth.
A dream deferred is socially unacceptable in a world where productivity reigns supreme. Most of the time, a dream deferred is a scary prospect, like being alone in a cave, driven to isolation, with nobody to share experiences of fear and anguish, wrapped up alone in your own self-recriminating little world. Sometimes, however, the metaphorical lost-wanderer stumbles out of the cave, into a beautiful forest looking into a sky open to the stars above. It is that rare gesture towards the heavens in anticipation of a bright future that sustains hope, a fragile idea, the notion of starlight in the sky, when deep down in the recesses of the earth.
For me, the conclusion of this poem is hope. To explode, to light up an insatiable curiosity, hell-bent on understanding; that is what it personally means to me to have a dream deferred. I have tasted and sampled what it means to be a researcher, have understood the long and tired nights, in pursuit of a knowledge yet uncovered. The physician scientist’s task is not a solo endeavor, but it can be a lonely one. Yet, there is a joy in the transformation of ignorance to knowledge, described by the greeks as anagnorisis, that drives and compels the very heart of science.
I first heard the term in Mike Rowe’s TED talk, a strangely grounded combination of philosophy and comedy, a talk describing his most memorable “dirty job”. Initially, it was his idiosyncratic style of speaking that roped me in, but it was his skillfull discussion on labor that kept me listening. Mike talks about this “war on jobs”, a departure from skilled labor that reminded me of Kalanithi’s description of neurosurgery. Kalanithi, author of my favorite book, “When a Breathe Becomes Air”, has this quote that describes why he made the choice to pursue one of the most challenging medical specialties:
“I was compelled by neurosurgery, with its unforgiving call to perfection; like the ancient Greek concept arete, I thought, virtue required moral, emotional, mental, and physical excellence. Neurosurgery seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity, and death.”
For some odd reason, I felt that there were haunting similarities between Mike Rowe’s description of road-kill collectors and Kalanithi’s choice of occupation. From both, individuals have drawn a sense of satisfaction; they have found some deep-rooted meaning for the work that they do, in contrast to the daily drudgery that most consider work to be. Although there is a difference, to be sure, in the type of work, I can’t help but feel that there was some measure of deep consideration and introspection required to perform both tasks. From a society that has instilled in us the idea: “Follow your dreams”, there are some workers who have traveled off the beaten road, challenging our lofty ideals of passion and ethics, to perform the inglorious tasks that have to be done, that our society necessitates to continue to function.
Honestly, it made me reconsider this idea of a “dream deferred” a superficial one, and yet there is some inexorable tug of curiosity that drags me back into that dark cave alone, remembering what it’s like to be afraid. It’s too easy to ask the questions: “What does society think of me as an individual?” and “What do those who care about me say about me?”, but at the end of the day, the only measures of success are those that have been self-delineated, measured out by your own ideals and values.
I leave you with this fun quote by Teddy Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."