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Saturday, June 3, 2017


A few years ago while I was interviewing for residency positions at several family medicine programs across the country, the interviewer would begin the somewhat dreadful and unnatural ordeal by asking me about myself. To which question I would invariably reply, "Well, I was born a poor black boy." 

This is a line from one of my favorite movies, one of the all-time comedic wonders of cinema, The Jerk. The film stars Steve Martin as an orphan raised by a black family in the rural south. As you probably know, Martin is as white as they come, but he grows up believing that he is just like his adopted brothers and sisters in every way. And the movie, which chronicles the ups and downs of Martin's ingenue, begins with that famous line. 

I quoted the movie without revealing the reference to gauge the sense of humor of my interviewer, as well as his love of cinema. If the representative of a program appreciated the allusion, as with a chuckle or even a smile or perhaps a mention of the film's name, I could feel confident the program itself, by extension, would likely be a good match, as there would probably be other like-minded physicians and we might hope to while some of the small hours away with mirth. If he squinted or frowned at the reference, or didn't get it at all, or fidgeted irritably and asked me to move on, I'd cross the program off my list. Of the half-dozen interviews I sat for, only one program made the cut. It was the University of Colorado, thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Cain, who conducted the interview and later became my mentor. He turned out to be an outlier, and nobody else in the program was as zany as him or me. So I left Denver a year after I arrived, with Dr. Cain's blessings, and precious few fond memories.

In the film Martin is obsessed with finding his "special purpose." He joins a carnival and is seduced by a biker chick, who uses him as a boy toy. And finds meaning in life in his mojo. He later develops a technology that prevents one's eyeglasses from slipping down one's nose, and goes on to make millions. He forgets his humble beginning and lives the high life of luxury and pomp. Until it is discovered that his invention contains some strange alloy that causes the wearer of such glasses to become cross-eyed. He is sued and loses everything to wind up where he started - penniless and alone, but with wisdom won from experience. 

The Jerk should be viewed as a cautionary tale by the modern American entrepreneur in the making. Get rich quick schemes often fail, and when they do succeed, the rapid rise to the top is often attended by controversy and lawsuits. Witness Gawker. If you are in search of your special purpose, look elsewhere. Of course the self-help genre is rife with books that claim to tell you how to realize your desires. These authors are forgetful that the original self-help guru, the Buddha, preached the exact opposite. His Four Noble Truths promised a way out of suffering. Suffering comes from wanting what we don't have. Liberation doesn't lie in having more desires and fulfilling them, but in detaching oneself from desires and being free. Or in the words of the Russian author Chekhov, the true success in life is one whose "attitude towards fame is one of indifference, as towards a toy which no longer interests you."

Many pearls of wisdom can be found in Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories. In one tale, a young student has a vision of a monk who tells him: "You are one of those few who are justly called the chosen of God. You do the service of eternal truth. Your thoughts, your designs, the marvelous studies you are engaged in, and all your life, bear the Divine, the heavenly stamp, seeing that they are consecrated to the rational and the beautiful - that is, to what is eternal.... A grand, brilliant future is in store for you men. And the more there are like you on earth, the sooner will this future be realized. Without you who serve the higher principle and live in full understanding and freedom, mankind would be of little account; developing in a natural way, it would have to wait a long time for the end of its earthly history. You will lead it some thousands of years earlier into the kingdom of eternal truth - and therein lies your supreme service. You are the incarnation of the blessing of God, which rests upon men."

I read this passage and was moved to tears. I saw in these words an image of the Buddha, Christ, Moses and other great beings - and, I hoped, myself. But as I read on my reverie became tinged with chagrin. For these visions turn out to be the delusions of one suffering from terminal illness, and in a later scene, after one more encounter with the mysterious figure, the protagonist is left to die in a pool of his own blood. 

But the reality of the words still remains. The line between delusions of grandeur and eternal truth is a thin one. The schizophrenic is locked in his own mind, at the center of an often-bleak universe in which nobody else matters and from which he cannot escape. While the true adept, the Buddhas of the world, see the truth as applying to all of humanity. Each of us is an aspect of the Divine, an integral part of creation sent to earth with a grand mission, which is the upliftment of humanity. Make that your special purpose and save millions.

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