As of writing, it has been over 12 months since I last sat in silence with my own thoughts. In hindsight, this is rather worrying. In my day to day, I am often overstimulated. I wake up and often check my emails in bed prior to the Formula 1 paced rush of getting ready for work. I should probably begin my preparation the night before by lining out my clothes and packing my bag. Yet, I never seem to do it.
After checking that the cooker is off about 5 times, my eyes focus on my headphones like a predator hunting prey. I never leave the house without my headphones on, embracing their comfort like the return of a long-lost lover. With this, music will play through my consciousness throughout much of the day. It could include mood lifting classics by Bob Marley and the Wailers, something with a bit of swagger like Green Onions by Booker T & The M.G’s, or something a bit more aggressive. However, during the work hours it usually encompasses stuff with a more repetitive tone to help me get into a motivational groove. Dance music in some description usually takes centre stage. Then it’s the – luckily minimal – walk to work. A day in the life of a scientist is always diverse. Creativity can crash through the brain like a tidal wave or trickle like a stream. It depends on the day. Staying up to date with the scientific literature is a crucial stimulant for new research ideas, even if they turn out to be too grandiose for our lifetime (teleporting coffee devices anyone?).
Generally, though, research takes up most of the day. Right now, my focus is aimed on the collection of protein samples following the stimulation of neuroimmune cells with various drugs, ranging from inflammatory inducers to chemotherapeutics. Although experimenting on cells in a dish is hardly reflective of the galactic scale of complexity that the human brain displays – after all, there are more neurons in the brain than stars in the milky way! – it is a crucial approach which can be fundamental to new discovery, including the identification of new proteins, or reporting new functions of previously classified ones. Expansion is possible of course, using stem cells derived from human patients – these cells are special. With the induction of a precise concoction of chemicals – ‘sugar spice and everything nice’ comes to mind… – stem cells can be differentiated into any type of human cell. Liver, kidney, muscular, neuronal. It is an invaluable tool for translatable research. However, when we need to look at systemic effects of disease – our lab primarily works on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease – whole organism models are vital. As such, mice are often the primary animal of choice, including for my own in vivo work.
Alongside this, additional weekly seminars, reading multiple manuscripts per week, two meeting per-week, preparing ideas for grant proposals, peer-reviewing other researchers’ manuscript while also preparing your own… phew. The time for lunch, let alone self-reflection, is incredibly limited. My music obsession helps me manage my workload more effectively. It assists in preventing my work following me home. Although, returning to lab to finish experiments during the twilight hours is not uncommon.
This passion for music continues into the evening, wherein my main hobby is to sit down and try my hand at making some tracks. While not an expert, I have been lucky enough to have some of my records signed to a few prestigious dance music labels. But what does this all equate to? It means the creativity brain doesn’t really stop. Even in times of physical exhaustion, when the trickling stream has dried up into an unquenchable drought, I try to continue.
So, when do I take time to reflect and process my own thoughts and emotions? Well, I think I have gradually grown to intentionally try and avoid it. A few weeks ago, I decided to give myself 15 minutes to just lay on the couch with some classical music and reflect on the last decade. I turned 30 earlier this year which, obviously, is quite the milestone. I reflected on what I had achieved during that period. I graduated college, twice. I officially earned by PhD and became a doctor – sorry, I can’t help you if your body fails, but I’m sure I could take a crack at a diagnosis. I’ll test my hypothesis in a dish and get back to you in 20 years. I have also lived on three continents, in three cities. I have loved, lost, and loved again. I continue to love. I am grateful that I will always continue to love. Unfortunately, expansion of those emotions towards myself appears limited.
Don’t get me wrong, I am exceptionally proud of the achievements I have collected since 2014. However, there is an overshadowing question that I cannot seem to avoid: Does this self-admiration translate to self-perception?
No. No it does not. Why do I not sit with my thoughts? I think that is the answer. I can sit down and appreciate the life that I have. I love the people around me. I am selective with my ‘inner circle’, as it were. More critically, earlier this year I was resilient and strategic enough to muster the courage to eliminate a toxic shadow that has been plaguing my existence. Though, that is an entirely different chapter.
I have a genuine distaste for my existence at times. While that sounds incredibly morbid – and by most standards, it is – I am not sure what it means. I also do not understand why. I try my best to be a good person, and I do feel like I am one. I treat everyone how I would like to be treated, and I would bend over backwards for anyone I truly love. Yet, not for myself.
A question I have been battling for many years is ‘what makes me truly happy?’ Happy right down to the core… the bones. It remains a question I simply cannot answer. I’m not sure I ever have. I do know that nature has always been a peace inducer. Embracing nature is beautiful. All five senses heightened by humanity’s silence. Appreciating what true beauty looked like prior to our global domination and noxiousness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not intending (nor do I want to) become a nomad and just disappear into the wilderness and never return. Although, I do think I am truly at peace when I am in and around nature. Like most of us, I need to have a purpose. My work and my fiancé give me that purpose.
So then… what is the issue? The million-dollar question. Unfortunately, I cannot cash that ticket. Will I ever be able to? After all these years, I don’t think so. Although, I have not entirely lost hope. Perhaps it is time I began an excavation of my historical experiences and identify a root cause. Yet, I do not think any individual’s personal battles are as simplistic as this. Compare this, for example, to marriage. Excluding something unforgivably devilish, does a marriage end in divorce because of one singular event? Absolutely not. It often presents as a poisonous aggregation of pathological problems that manifest due to lack of ability, interest, and/or maturity to rectify the situation.
For me, perhaps this is a life-long journey. I know definitively that nobody other than myself will identify these issues. My mind is a chaotic mess of self-defeatism, deflection, frustration, rage, and intensity. It explains why I never tend to sit in my head too often. For example, earlier this week I asked myself: ‘What happens if I develop an incurable disease?’ My immediate response: ‘Phew. That’s a partial relief’. I think I’m so mentally overloaded that on certain days I have just had enough. It’s exhausting.
I need to explore my mind further, although it’s the last thing I wish to infect myself with. Because I spend most of my days keeping so busy, I never actually give myself the chance to initiate this assignment. It is intentional, I’m sure. Although I am beginning to spend 10-15 minutes a week in silence, thanks to the incorporation of a ‘health’ to-do list. During this period, I try to select remnants of negativity and pessimism and piece them together to curate some clarity… a bigger picture. Almost like a psychological jigsaw. Right now, though, it feels like kicking the hornet’s nest. Hopefully things will improve with repetition. Following an infamous quote by Thomas Wolfe: “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”
For those of you who also ignore reflection, I impede you to do it. I wish I was better at it. I do truly believe it will help most of us find a measure of solace. For me, every day is a contemporaneous flux of the positive and negative. Which one will win? I guess I’ll find out.
“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” – Karl Popper