The Santiago Pilgrimage by Jean-Christophe Rufin

A few weeks ago my mother invited me to a talk by one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. I’d never heard of him before but was immediately interested in checking it out. The talk went for an hour and I was engaged the whole time. Obviously he’s much more successful than me, but all the same he was a man after my own heart. Clearly an unsettled sort of fellow that had found a temporary measure of public peace through intense inner work. Knowledge, wisdom, travel. These appeared to be his values. I can’t help but think he isbn9780857059987-detailbecame a humanitarian not out of compassion, but out of the philosophy that it was the best thing one could do with their life.

He spoke briefly about his humanitarian work, being the French ambassador to Senegal and the immigration situation in Europe. He advocated less immigrants which I was surprised about but also agreed with. Mostly though he spoke about a pilgrimage that he made through Spain. From somewhere I don’t know to Santiago de Compostela. He took “the Northern Route” through the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. It was an ancient pilgrimage first made by King Alfonso to visit the remains of St James the apostle. No one knows how those remains got from the holy lands to Spain.

I instantly swooped in at the idea of purchasing a copy of his book and getting it signed. We waited in line for a few minutes as he sat at the table signing books. It would be the first time I’d ever spoken to a “famous person” before. He’s the sort of famous person I admire because in my opinion he has done everything in his life that I would like to do. Become a doctor, travel, lead an organisation, write a book, make a positive impact. There aren’t many people to my knowledge who have “done it all” like that. I was actually quite star struck even though I’d never heard of him before and impressed with his energy. There was nothing too special about the moment we spoke, if anything a bit disillusioning because he was just another person – I’ve seen many of them already. He seemed to simultaneously abhor the encumbrances of social status yet had just made a talk to many people about his accomplishments. Contradictions can exist in nature; and especially in complicated personalities. He signed the book although I can’t read what it says (I think that’s the fashion). It’s now become very valuable to me.

The book is a lovely hardback with quite thick, luxuriously spaced pages. It’s gorgeous to look at because of the distinctly Spanish cover art, richly contrasting colours, the obvious subject matter of a pilgrimage and the prestige of the name on the front. It’s about 230 pages. I’d say it was written in the tradition of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It seems to have that enlightened quality to it. And of course it’s a book of the travel genre too. There were some laugh out loud moments and it painted a picture of the various places along the way pretty well without overdoing it. It wasn’t too challenging or rigorous – it had the tone of someone who had transcended beyond valuing intellect. And of course, it was originally written in French. It seemed to maintain its French aspect. English always seems quite utilitarian by comparison.

There was nothing too surprising about it. No big twists or anything. It was merely an anecdote of the 800km pilgrimage he took by foot. Being a travel book it was quite sensuous: a sore foot, the sound of snoring, visual features along the path. It was spiritual in intent. He was alone much of the time but also with people at various times too: so there was a balance of inner thoughts and interactions. He walked for several weeks, it was hard, there were places along the way, he went through different stages.

This wasn’t an idle story meant for entertainment I don’t think. This book is meant to teach something. It was rather unique and authentic in the sense that it doesn’t presume to uncover any huge secret or anything. The lesson is in the story itself. Lessons of learning to let go of what’s unnecessary. To live in the present. Peel away layers until you get to deeper truths. Then when he finished the journey it was a little bit disappointing – he hadn’t gotten some big change which would be his salvation. Having been on a few journeys myself this matches my experience – it was good that he risked telling it exactly how it is despite it being disenchanting. Soon enough things went back to normal with the addition of some golden memories. Yet, and I can attest to this, one is subtly changed by these sorts of journeys in ways that emerge over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps even, it was a spiritual journey taken as a young man which seeded the wisdom to found Doctors Without Borders or write books.

“His anecdote helped me reconcile two contrasting realities hitherto incompatible: the splendour of the Christian liturgy and the primitive simplicity of the Way.”

“For several months after my return, I tried to apply my reflections on my fears to the whole of my life. I calmly examine what I carried on my back. I cast off many things, many projects, many constraints. I tried to lighten my load to make it easier to bear the mochila (backpack) of existence.”

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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I picked up this book yesterday whilst at layover in Changi airport, Singapore. There were many fine books as there often are at airport bookstores. I recognised this one as a best-seller in the Amazon medicine category. It was a handsome, white hardback with ruffled pages which are so nice to turn and with plenty of empty space on each page. It was the thought of having that book on my shelf for a lifetime that made me choose it rather than the Elon Musk biography or The 4-hour workweek.

The book is the story of an aspiring neurosurgeon who gets lung cancer shortly before he finishes his training, how his life is devastated by it and how he tries to put it back together.

“Now this is not the end. Or even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning”

Tragically the title doesn’t quite fit the book. However it is symbolic for what he hoped the book to be if he had a little more time and thus becomes itself a part of the experience.

Paul spent 10 years training to be a neurosurgeon. In his 30’s, shortly before attaining his final certification he got lung cancer which would be terminal.

He was incredibly ambitious. He wrote how many medical students would opt for “lifestyle” specialities such as dermatologist which had less demanding hours. I don’t fully understand why he chose Neurosurgery, which is perhaps the most demanding speciality. Even that was only part of his ambitions though. He also wanted to be a serious Neuroscientist and author as well. One is struck by the enormity of his expectations and I personally felt it raised the ceiling of expectations in general.

“The pain of failure had led me to believe that technical excellence was a moral requirement”

The book has two parts as well as a prologue and an epilogue. The first part is about his childhood and the development of his journey as he planned for a long, healthy life. The second part is about his short life after the revelation of lung cancer.

It’s crucial that he had everything planned out. He referred a lot to “identity” where others may refer to their personality or life in general, perhaps this is a neurosurgeon’s unique perspective. Finding a new identity, a new life seemed to be a key part of his process.

“Emma hadn’t given me back my old identity. She’d protected my ability to forge a new one. And, finally I knew I would have to”

In the first part of the book he would deal with patients who would often be facing their mortality. He wanted to do what ought to be done for them, or perhaps even more so to simply understand. Yet after reading the second part, one is left with the impression that he was somehow unsatisfied in his treatment of the dying. He understood it as being like a pastor.

Uncertainty about prognostications weighed heavily on his thinking. Achievement was a huge part of this man’s life and he needed to know how long he had left to make the right decisions. For example if he lived a month he would spend it with family, a year he would write a book, ten years he would return to neurosurgery. At one point the cancer stabilised and he did go back to surgery and eventually graduated and finally became fully certified as a neurosurgeon.

“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” – Samuel Beckett

He and his wife had a baby less than a year before he died. His final message to the daughter at the close of the book was beautiful and heart-breaking. Perhaps the greatest literary achievement and the most honest part of the book which is saying a lot. His message to his infant daughter was essentially that if she ever wants to consider her worth in the world, to remember that once she was the singular, abiding happiness in his otherwise future-oriented and all-too-demanding life.

In the epilogue, the wife (an internist) writes about his last days and after he died. This adds yet another creative dimension to the work and deepens the impression of Paul even further.

“Bereavement is not the truncation of married love, but one of its regular phases – like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too” – C.S. Lewis

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