Drawing Value from our Stories; The Mark of the Mature Man

I wanted to share a small story that I recently had which sheds some light on the way pre-medical students (and undergraduates in general) perceive their education. For our medical school admissions applications, we are required to write personal statements that show more about who we are and why we are each amazing candidates for the path to becoming a doctor. Unlike the stringent requirements of completing activities (volunteering, research, extracurriculars, etc.) this gives each of us a unique way to show who we really are. But it raises a lot of fundamental questions about us.

How do our experiences shape who we are? Does the value of a person come from him/herself or from his/her experiences? What gives a person commendable qualities? I believe that it is not the experience that improves a person, but, how the person reacts and acts upon struggling situations; and the most formative experiences are not romanticized, but everyday reflections of our lives.

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” – Wilhelm Stekel

Here at my internship at the University of Chicago, I was eating out with a few of the other interns one night. After we ordered our food, I was sharing a stressful experience of mine a few years ago. I explained the experience in great detail and saw the others react in surprise. It was an experience which was shocking, challenging, and unique. It was something that probably no other student would have gone through, and it definitely changed me as a person. The other interns suggested it would be a great essay topic for the medical school application. I disagreed.

The first issue that I would take with using my story in a medical school application was that it was an experience that was caused by something that was outside of my control and forced upon me. If I were to mention it in an essay, it would seem as though I was being “opportunistic.” Instead, I wanted an individualistic, empowering approach that would save us from the existential crisis of fate and fortune. I like the idea that value comes from what we make of our stories, and not from the experience itself, and this may remedy some of the neurotic woes of experience-grinding and resume-padding that plague our education. Instead of searching for meaning and motivation like they are things that we can obtain and find in our activities, it might help to view the value of our education as what we create. I’m not sure of the extent to which the idea that our own interpretation of experiences dominates over experiences themselves can be applied, but we can revisit the idea later.

The other issue with my story was that it draws something “emotional” from the reader. I believe an AdCom would feel uncomfortable or bored when reading sob stories and heart-wrenching tales about how you went to Guatemala and witnessed the “tragic atrocities” that thousands of people have to face or about how your perspective changed when your grandmother died of cancer. Any emotion-inducing story can have a deviant opportunistic appeal and, while it may have a legitimate impact on your life, it is contriving to suggest that it is the reason for your success & worth as a student.

For example, I was once speaking to another pre-medical student who told me about an experience in which he helped save a girl from committing suicide that he would write about in his medical school essay. Regardless of the fact that saving a person from committing suicide is something any rational human being would do, there was an emotional reaction (including “shock”, “sympathy-inducing”) from this story as an appeal. Sure, you may have learned about the fragility of human health and soul, but, is the cause for this realization coming from the emotional (pathos) appeal or from rational rumination on what is important to human beings? Kant, Sartre, and Freud didn’t formulate hypotheses on the value of human life and health due to emotional experiences. They did so due to their reason, and the emotional appeal is unnecessary.

For it is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought (Aristotle, Rhetoric. III.I.9)

And, if the appeal of the situation is that it is “unique,” then one might think it would stick around in the memory of AdComs for a bit longer. But, ultimately, if it is a subconscious appeal, then AdComs would be aware of those sorts of appeals (and would, therefore, take into account), and, if it a conscious appeal, then AdComs would not give preference anyway to someone just because he/she is “different” from the rest. We do not choose to venerate Plato and Socrates because we remember them better nor because they invoke emotions and unique experiences. We choose to do so because they were the best at their profession. Similarly, undergraduates should not draw value from memorability or prose, but from reverence for human nature. Besides, if it truly takes some stressful situation to make you a better person as opposed to the humble experiences that we have on a day-to-day basis, then that just shows how difficult it must be for you to improve as a person in the real world.  In light of this, why would anyone think that having a emotional or unique situation would enhance his/her application?

I do not mean to say that challenges are unnecessary nor unhelpful for medical school admissions. Rather, as I’ve mentioned, the worth of the student should come from what he/she chooses to make out of their challenge, not from the challenge itself. So, for my story, simply having a unique & heart-wrenching experience should not make my application worthy.

The final, and most important, issue that needs to be addressed is that stories like these are purely romantic fiction. In Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Mr. Antolini quotes Psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” as he explains that Holden Caulfield must learn to grow out of his disillusioned, heroic vision of himself. The immature man chases the exciting, idealistic adornment from others while the mature man understands that tragic wisdom truly makes people brilliant. Pre-medical students (and undergraduates in general) must realize that we create true wisdom from our normal, everyday experiences not from flashy tales of epic struggle. Those stories do not accurately represent the complex moral dilemmas and struggles of the human condition.

Before I end this post, I need to clarify that I think there are some helpful things to know (how to tell a story, find a “human” value in what you do, etc) that will show how well of a medical/graduate school candidate you are, but ultimately I don’t have the power to judge anybody. I can only give the impression that I get from the discourse of others surrounding their experiences. In order for us to address these issues, it is very helpful (but not necessary) to have empirical evidence (ie., direct evidence from the behavior of other students). But it’s very difficult to talk about the behavior of others without succumbing to the pretentious, judgmental position that one must criticize harmful attitudes of those among us. I do not wish to philosophize and analyze the nature of those around me. But who cares, right? Those people are all a phonies.

We should just take solace in what we can make of ourselves for now.

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