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I found out this week that the 25th of May is Towel Day; a day dedicated to the memory of Douglas Adams. Some of you may have come across his iconic work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (from which the towel reference originates).
My favourite image from the novel is that of the eponymous book, from which the novel takes its name. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a collection of all the knowledge and wisdom in the universe. In that sense it is very like the Encyclopedia Galactica, but infinitely more popular, because:
“First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
Why did I find this relevant in my exam-befuddled state? Two main reasons. The first was that the above description forcibly reminded me of my textbooks. I too, have Encyclopedias; mega-tomes replete with a galaxy’s worth of medical knowledge, and so heavy that even the act of taking them down from their shelf is cumbersome enough to discourage you. And then I have my Hitchhiker’s guides; smaller, friendlier versions of the same knowledge, which are obviously not as good at giving you all the necessary background information, but which I often prefer because they are slightly simpler, and less likely to throw me into a state of panic. Oh, and many of them have a sense of humour.
Medical textbooks which make you chuckle were not something which I thought could exist. But they do. And whenever I come across one of these books, whether it jokingly quotes Shakespeare to me while explaining Haematology or delves into long-winded musings about the meaning of Death half-way through the section about History-taking – I smile and feel a sense of kinship. I remember that these books were written by doctors; by people who like me, had gone through medical school, and who had thankfully emerged with their sense of humour, and wonder, and philosophy intact.
That knowledge is precious. There comes a time during this last race towards the finish, where you get the feeling that you are in a war. And just like a shot from a war movie, you look around as you run from the fire that is pouring down on you from all sides, and you see your companions fall in slow motion before your eyes. A few fall because they have strayed from their goal. Some fall because they have been weighed down by their own panic and stress and insecurities.
And many fall from your good opinion as they suddenly and mysteriously transform into inhumane and selfish monsters, who turn on you and shower you with friendly fire. Maybe they think that the shelter you are both running to will not be big enough for you and them. Maybe they just want to get there first. But even as you are shot down by what were once your trusted companions, a sense of sadness comes over you, and you wonder just how much of yourself will remain after this war, or whether you too will lose important parts of your personality in the fire.
You worry about whether you will ever get back that sense of wonder at the most trivial and truest things in life. Whether you’ll ever be able to laugh at stupid puns and read weird books and be a multi-layered human being again.
Maybe that is why it is so important for me to come across these sections in my medical books; the silly paragraphs about hot-air balloons and Enid Blyton characters. I am glad to think that by the time these battles are over I will not have devolved into a single-minded creature who thinks only of medicine and its own success.
The greatest challenge I am facing, mere weeks away from my last exams as a medical student, is not the quest to cram in more knowledge (although believe me, that challenge never ends). It is to keep on believing in myself, to keep up not only a facade, but a true sense of humanity and humour to sustain me in my struggles. And the final challenge is to follow the one piece of advice I keep getting over and over and over again (and the second reason why Towel Day struck a cord within me). It also happens to be exactly the same advice given to all hitchhikers whose planet has been destroyed by Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass.