Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Even (perhaps especially?) rejectors of materialism need to get away occasionally, so I'm joining a friend in Alaska for the next few days. This is, after all, the one week I'll have off before internship, and then I'll be doing the whole 80 hours/week thing for who knows how long. Which is a long way of saying I'm taking a week off of blogging again. I'll post some pics when I get back.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


One of the many exciting aspects of this career I have chosen is the universal desireability of my skills in volunteer projects. Even now, I'm setting up my fourth year, and it turns out that as a medical student, I can get academic credit for going to Mongolia, or Peru, or Nepal or any of a dozen other exotic locations. Not only that, but in travelling there I will not be a tourist solely, but will also get the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to the lives of the people there. So, I've spent the last hour or so sending emails, and we'll see where I end up heading if this pans out.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

More thoughts on possessions

Mostly related to a previous post

I'm rereading "Into the Wild." Despite what anyone thinks about the main lesson of the story, the point Krakauer weaves into it is that search for "the wild" is in reality a search for meaning, whatever that means. And in that search, particularly in the wilderness, in the natural world, away from plastic and its discontents, people find that things, that even self is not the point. In the wilderness, Chris McCandless found something beyond himself, something grand and glorious he could only see because he gave up everything: his money, his possessions, his security. Though the particulars are different, this is what Jesus was getting at saying "who ever wishes to save his life must lose it." Or what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she said "When we are asked "what do you value more than life?" the answer can only be "Life--the right kind of life, the creative and god-like life." And life, of any kind, can be had only if we are ready to lose life altogether--a plain observation of fact that we acknowledge every time a child is born, or, indeed, whenever we plunge into a stream of traffic in the hope of attaining a more desireable life on the other side."

What is fascinating about this example is that Chris never got enough of the wilderness. He was always seeking a more extreme adventure, to see more of "the wild" because he felt the answer was out there. And the wilderness killed him.

I feel my life, and that of most people I know, is lacking in that kind of ecstatic desperation, that drive not to "carpe diem" but more to "redeem the time, because the days are evil." We drug ourselves, buying soma with every new toy, to take our minds off the subconscious realization that we're missing the point.

It sounds like a Sunday School truism worthy of satire to say "faith is the answer." It may be, but phrasing it like that misses the point. Jesus is not the quaint, smiling picture on the cover of the "New Friends Bible." And neither is faith summarized in a prepackaged three point pep talk complete with soundtrack and a PurposeDriven(c) stamp on it. Frankly, that's just more things, which we already have too many of.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


That's where I'll be for the next week. Fret not, gentle reader.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The lost fight of virtue

I could show you these men and women, all the world over, in every stage of history, under every abuse of error, under every circumstance of failure, without hope, without help, without thanks, still obscurely fighting the lost fight of virtue, still clinging, in the brothel or on the scaffold, to some rag of honour, the poor jewel of their souls! They may seek to escape, and yet they cannot; it is not alone their privilege and glory, but their doom; they are condemned to some nobility; all their lives long, the desire of good is at their heels, the implacable hunter.

Some days I think "fighting the lost fight of virtue" describes everything a doctor does. For, though my profession struggles to ease pain, to improve lives in quality and extend them in quantity, and though those aims sometimes are more obviously conflicting than complimentary, the desire of good is at our heels, and in the end, the fight is lost.

But it is still worth fighting.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Thoughts while skipping church

There is no permanence to things.

However things often pass for meaning. By any sane standard, I am fabulously wealthy. I can get up from where I am sitting now, walk into my kitchen, and choose between coffee from Kenya or Hawaii, tea from Ceylon, or wine from Argentina or Australia to go with a cheese from Denmark or Wisconsin, as my fancy suits me. So can almost anyone in America, or the Western world. Yet I feel it is necessary to buy more things, more objects stamped out of plastic or titanium or carbon fiber, whatever is the flavor of the week.

I read once that Andy Warhol's apartment was full of bags of groceries when he died, that he bought things merely to fill the void. The story may be false, but the essence rings true. Our lives lack meaning or permanence, so we buy things to fill them. Consumption is the order of the day. What are we doing? What are we looking for? Or is it to avoid looking that we consume? Why is it so difficult to give up the material security I have?

When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

I call myself a Christian, but I see more of the rich man in me than I'm sure Jesus would approve of. I've grown tired of attempting to rationalize, of saying that since I tithe or hand out food to the homeless on the street corners, or even that I've chosen a profession tradtionally allied with selfless service that I've somehow fulfilled my obligation. I think Jesus was cutting to my heart of hearts with that simple phrase. And his words mean I can't compare myself to others, I can't say I'm not Bill Gates, or even "I'm not choosing a lucrative medical specialty" and give myself a pass.

There is (and here my rationalization starts) a point to which I cannot go here. If I were truly to sell everything I own, it would necessarily include the accoutrements I require to practise medicine. Fine, keep those. It would include my car, without which I would be unable to reach the hospital. Fine, keep that. It would include my clothes, including those of the nicer variety I am expected to wear to maintain a "professional image". Where does it end? Are the rationalizations continued with validity to the point where I can say "keep the iPod, because music feeds ones soul" or "because G-d wants us to enjoy His creations"?

Peter Kreeft, in his ethical work "Making Choices" outlines a theory that usually, the correct, godly choice is somewhere between extremes. As humans we tend to extremes, and being made in the image of God, those extremes are at least shadows of Him. Similarly here, there must be a third way between consumerism and asceticism. But finding that third way seems to necessitate compromise, and worse, a compromise on absolute principles.

The point I'm taking away from all this is that G-d must be foremost in our thoughts, and any time possessions or the drive to possessions come between Him and us, we are wrong. That much is obvious, but as Calvin said, our hearts are "idol factories". Therefore this will always be a danger, even if we possess only a roof over our heads. So we must go farther, circumcising our hearts, and though it pains me to say this, because I realize how far I am from fulfilling it, I think we must limit our consumption to the point that we notice it. Even as in fasting we are to use our awareness of hunger to spur contemplation, so in material asceticism, we must have an awareness of lack so that we can use that awareness to drive us to our Maker. In doing so, we avoid the error of the rich man, in valuing our possesssions more than our salvation. Additionally, we restore the abilty to recieve gifts that mean something, allowing our fellows to be blessed in the giving.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

I passed!

I just got my last two sets of test scores from the third year, and I passed. I've been officially a fourth year, but now there's no danger of me having to repeat any rotations. I wasn't terribly worried, but it's still a huge relief.

Friday, July 07, 2006

21st century meditation

My life is plastic.

From my credit card to my microwave, nine tenths of what I own is stamped out of a brittle, worthless reminder of how far removed I am from the natural world.

But on a deeper level too, my life is plastic. I spend a large part of my time I have glued to a computer screen, displaying an image that is the essence of ephemeral, for if, at any point in the long chain of power supply or data transfer, a link is broken, it will not be displayed. My life is utterly a product of modern constructions. It rests on a framework that a power outage would destroy.

I read in one of my medical texts that the sun exposure a person gets between 0 and 18 years old is 80% of the exposure they will get in a lifetime.

Isn't that unsettling?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Peggy Honeywell - Faint Humms

My current rotation is mostly classroom stuff, refreshing our tortured minds on the basics before we head out to conquer the world (or at least our residency sites) with a stunning display of medical virtuosity. At least, that's the idea. What it really does is afford the typical slacker medical student a wonderful opportunity to attend class for the required 8 hours (8 hours?! Joyous brevity!) and then catch up on outside reading, relaxing, and in my case, listening to new music.

Enter Peggy Honeywell.

I found this album because the recording company is the one the Innocence Mission used for their first album. And it is easy to see the consistency in style: soft, low key, simple melodies and production, thoughtful lyricism. The rising star of this label is the Swede Jose Gonzalez (no, that's not a joke) but I fell for Honeywell's style.

Faint Humms is her sophomore effort, and listening to the first one, she's fortunate to have gotten the chance. If nothing else, her first album proved you don't have to have technical mastery of your instrument to achieve "critical acclaim." The one gem on that album "Moon" is probably why "Faint Humms" exists. "Moon" shows a promise fulfilled in her latest work.

The musicianship is competent (certainly improved from her first album), but no more. There are no stunning displays of ability, no chord changes that tangle the mind's ability to follow. For the most part the only sound is Peggy and her acoustic guitar. But the album doesn't need anything else. Her voice is clear and unique, but reminiscent, as if she's channeling Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams simultaneously. In substance, she remains in the realm of the modern singer-songwriter, dealing largely with love and loss. The straightforward, guileless lyrics paint a shy narrarator either wondering at good fortune or accepting loss without surprise. Hence in "Drama King" she accepts her loss with "we both changed/the unchangeable change." But in Sing Sang Sung her rejoicing is the simple "Don't remember anything, other than it was perfect".

The album is a disappointment only in its brevity, but well worth the purchase. I'm going to enjoy this one for a long while to come.

Now I should go study.