I live on a deserted island.

Not really, but I might as well be. The way I feel right now, a deserted island might actually be a much better setting than my current location. Not only because of my ceaselessly welding neighbor and the loud public transport that runs all night on an adjacent highway; but also because I would like to stare into a deep, blue (or clear) body of water. Stare into the abyss, as they say, and have the abyss stare into me.

This is probably one of the most discussed Nietzsche aphorisms ever. Lost in translation, it is supposed to read roughly like this:

“Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.”

In interpretation, the first sentence tells us that we become what we hate. We take on the traits of whatever evil deed or person or habit we pursue. The second sentence tells us how it happens. Some argue that Nietzsche clearly commands you NOT to battle with monsters, but the Hollingdale translation suggests otherwise. According to that, the first sentence says “he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster.” Followers of this translation believe that Nietzsche is simply asking one to be more cautious when involving himself deeply in a conflict which is evil in nature.

I, on the contrary, always felt that this quote should be openly interpreted. It has always allowed me to learn something about someone from their explanation of it.

I never got past basic Philosophy in college, primarily because other disciplines closer to my career goals required my attention, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Philosophy is practical poetry to me. I don’t think of things in the same terms as I once used to. Not when I’m in Pakistan at least. Burdening myself with my own thoughts is the last thing that I need. Recently, however, I haven’t been able to stop thinking of this quote.

Battle Not With Monsters:

I won’t bore you with too many “when I first came to Pakistan” stories, but this is sort of important. When I first came here, I was repulsed by the general insensitivity I witnessed everywhere. Now, this may in part be due to my particular location and company. I didn’t realize that until at least two years into my stay.  I have seen the softer, much more elegant and humane side of this country now that I’ve been here for almost four years. When I first came though, and my friends would testify to this, I was on a never ending roll about how cold hearted and thick-skinned the people around here are. The incident involving the brutal deaths of two Sialkoti boys, for example. Don’t even bother looking it up. It’s too graphic. Just take my word on the fact that the murders were public and absolutely barbaric.

Anyway, when I first came here, I fell sick a lot. I made appointments with the best doctors available and I was appalled by the lack of compassion they showed towards their patients. Something about walking into a clinic and speaking English with an American accent gets their attention, but those who don’t, basically get shafted. I often found myself in situations where I would have to take a relative or a family friend to the doctor with me. They admitted that the doctor never bothered to pay that much attention when they were being chaperoned by just a regular chap or by themselves even, for that matter. I was flattered, pleased and overwhelmed with frustration at the same time. I promised myself over and over again, that when I start practicing medicine, regardless of my demographics, I would be as generous as humanly possible towards everybody.

I am now four years into my medical education. Two of which involved actual interaction with patients in a clinical, hospital setting. Our professors don’t practice what they preach. I doubt they even consider doing so. They will tell us to be extra courteous and attentive towards the patient, the bedside manners they teach are commendable, and 10 minutes later they’ll be examining a patient while chatting on their cell phone. I should state that it’s a government hospital. Patients are provided with cheap healthcare at the cost of quality. Not to be confused with proficiency, which is still quite high, to my surprise.

I have yet to speak up against that nonchalant attitude. Whenever I witness it, I stand there and wonder why the attending would tell us something and do the exact opposite. I wonder why no one in my batch is even considering the idea of speaking up against it. In my head, I imagine telling one of my professors off and then I remember how some of them have a tendency to hold grudges against students and screw them over when exam time comes around. So I stand there, quietly. I scowl, sometimes. And while scowling, I wonder if I’ll eventually justify their behavior in my head & become what I hate.

Abyss Gazes Into You:

When we see something, we see it through the lens of our own mind. In the example above, a friend standing next to me might be perceiving the situation in a completely different context. He might be admiring the doctor’s ability to multi task, or he might be condemning the doctor’s inattentiveness to his wife on the phone. The fact that me and my friend are both perceiving the same situation differently suggests that there isn’t anything there at all. The doctor, and the patient, are a part of a void. A vacuous space which drags you in to itself. You empathize with the nothingness, you begin to fill it with things only you can comprehend and thus, you begin to view yourself through the eyes of that void. The abyss, the emptiness, stares back at you. There is nothing scarier than what it sees, because you see it too.

I just want to be myself when I get out of medical school. I want to remain in the same spirits that I came here with. I will battle not with the monsters, for I do not wish to risk becoming one. I will continue to gaze into the abyss. The abyss will save me.

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9 thoughts on “I live on a deserted island.

  1. I am very moved. Being a medical student, I have always grappled mentally with the lack of compassion some professors show to the patient. I just hiss in fury when they do that and stay silent. They are professors after all.
    But there is some hope. I have seen professors whose bedside manner is so wonderful and treat the patients with so much warmth – even the most unruly and non-complaint patients are tamed.
    I will not pretend I have a thing for philosophy, always being scared of it (I really don’t why) – but this was a wonderful post.

    It gave me some hope. Thank you.

  2. A slightly better translation of Nietzsche’s aphorism would be,

    “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.”

    The German original does not contain any indication towards a command not to ‘do battle.’ Nietzsche’s dictum posits the self as essentially split. Vision no longer seems to guarantee control over what is seen. Instead, we are at the mercy of what we think we perceive. What is looked at becomes a dangerous abyss threatening to engulf us.

    I’ve written several articles on Nietzsche and his philosophical and psychological insights. In case you’re interested: http://tonguesandwich.wordpress.com/tag/nietzsche/

  3. You may want kill this comment after reading it but this post has confused and self-contradictory written all over it.
    But then coming from you, Mango, I’m not surprised.
    People in fact do end up becoming what they hate whether they wish it or not. The least I can hope for you is that you ultimately don’t become what you always rant/ranted against.

  4. At times there are just words. But then there are words that are beautifully put together. You have absolutely no reason to be insecure about this. I may not be the best writer around the block, but I sure do know how to read and judge. You are one fine writer, and I think you’ll make us proud someday. Mango.

  5. I like that part about perceiving the same situation differently. May be what you perceive “that doctors dont care” is just your perception.

  6. Wow. This post is really food for thought. I read it once, and then I read it again to take it in properly.
    Firstly, I can relate entirely with your “when I first came to Pakistan” perspective. I too have ” promised myself over and over again, that when I start practicing medicine, regardless of my demographics, I would be as generous as humanly possible towards everybody.”

    The concept of “the abyss gazes into you” however, is something thst has never occurred to me before. But I see what you mean. “A vacuous space which drags you in to itself. …… you begin to view yourself through the eyes of that void.” To borrow a phrase, everything is relative.

    Other than that I don’t really have words for thia post except that I shall be pondering over this for a while. One of your best posts yet.

  7. I don’t like giving any generic comments just praising before thoroughly reading any post and fully understanding it. That’s why, I read it twice. Also, I never give a second read unless I love the write up, so, I must say, so far the best one from your side. Though, I’ve not stepped into the practical side of medicine yet as you know, but living amidst a troop of doctors, I am quite aware of the attitude and all. Funny and awkward, my own dad, a very experienced doctor is of the same behavior most of the times, heartless as I name it. I’ve always wished to be a generously courteous doctor rather than a very successful one with a well established clinic and all where you only see the biased attitude and a system which is more of earning money only.
    As far as the second part is concerned that is justifiable as I believe, “If you see in the darkness, be careful as the darkness gazes back too.” The second part is so relate-able, to every person if apprehended in general stance.
    I must say, nothing cheers me up well than a beautifully written writing piece with a sophisticated and mostly correct language usage as I see it. This was one so, a piece of cake.
    @ S, I know every one has the right to give a view but I believe you are wrong in your say as the subtle vagueness and the sly insight in this post is what it makes actually beautiful. As far as writings with a philosophical context need the brain to be exercised to be apprehended fully.
    So far, this post is the exquisite one from your side as it could be even made relate-able to every person, if taken in plain general stance.
    You write beautifully, Senior and you really know how to twist the imagery and then execute it fluently.
    Keep penning, way to go. I am proud of you, Senior!

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