I once met a doctor at Kisumu Specialists Hospital who narrated to me a story of how he had spent a huge chunk his life teetering at the brink of chaos. I quickly knew that he was a bright man with stellar academic qualifications after a few minutes of interaction. He had spent years learning medical jargons and procedures in places like Cape Town, Ottawa and Philadelphia. These academic travels earned him abbreviations like DD and FACS at the end of his name. He knew his thing. I had gone to see him for a chest scan but I suspected, from the look of things, that he needed no x-ray to see through my aching chest. He could have as well looked me in the eye and told me “Relax Bwana Brandon, you’re alright. It’s just normal heart palpitations”. He was a good doctor. He still is.
My encounter with him opened up a universe that had been lurking in the shadows for far too long, waiting to be acknowledged. His treatment techniques were quite unconventional. I could say metaphysical or philosophical or spiritual. I still struggle finding the right word of description. I remember walking into his office hardly breathing and coming out with the resolve of a death-row inmate who had just been granted a new lease of life. My dad had told me that he was good but after our interaction I was convinced that he was an underrated titan in the medical world. His knowledge of everything was colossal. He didn’t just treat the outside. He reached for the inner soul and used his magic to settle the unseen turmoil of existence.
In retrospect, I can confidently state that my conversation with him spring-boarded me towards the quest for meaning. We had talked about so many things that day, most of which have come to manifest broadly in my daily existence. We talked about Noah’s Ark and reflected upon the importance of preparation. We discussed the period of renaissance. He casually brought about the writings of Sigmund Freud, who is one of the greatest clinical psychologists in the history of science. He’d pause for a moment and tell me something about discovering the meaning of meaning. This was sometime in 2018. My young mind at the time couldn’t decipher or entertain such deep insights for long but I found him exhilarating.
“Am I not taking too much of your time doc?” I asked at some point, worried about his other patients in the waiting room.
But he told me that the whole conversation was part of his methodical treatment regime. So I sat there like a little puppy and listened to why it’s important to have a purpose in life and to be guided by the grand narrative of humanity which is often shunned by Postmodernism. He threw analogies left, right and center. He’d easily navigate Biblical stories and weave them with things like behavioral therapy which made the discourse feel like a fourth year medical lecture at some point.
His office was too beautiful and organized for someone who had a chaotic handwriting. He looked like someone who was born in June but didn’t give a damn about birthdays. He had a painting on the wall which I couldn’t put meaning to. And he had the kind of big smile that you only see in those dentists on TV adverts who recommend certain toothpastes for use. His kind of wisdom is what modern-day intelligent people would describe as Solomonic. If I was that wise, I’d walk around in robes and keep bushy beards and behave like an alchemist. For the first time in my life, I met a person who was deeply motivational and inspiring without being generic about it. He didn’t tell me to go read the book ‘The Monk who sold his own Ferrari’. I appreciated that. Because, who wants to read a book whose title sounds like the headline of a research paper?
I left his office challenged. I had not only dark scans (of my two stubborn lungs) in my left hand but also clarity in my mind about what I should be doing with my time. The desire to pursue meaning in life can sometimes manifest in the most unlikely of places through the most unlikely of people.
When I caught up with my dad later that day, he weighed in on whole issue as briefly as only he could. I asked him “What is important between pursuing meaning and chasing happiness?” He had (and still has) this unusual conviction that everyone has a moral obligation to lead a meaningful life. He deemed happiness to be a luxury and as something not always guaranteed in this short life. But he was cautious to add that leading a meaningful life could somehow guarantee happiness. I had no rebuttal to that. How could I dispute his over sixty years’ experience in life? Besides, boys always look up to their dads, in one way or another, and believe almost everything they say. We are their genetical captives after all.
My cousin, Arnold, died a few days after that day and it’s like all the energy I had mustered to scout meaning, as per the doctor’s advice, went through the window. Two days after the funeral, I remember my mother finding me asleep on the carpet in the living room at 11 am. We sat in silence for a while and she later said something about how tragic life can be. I am still haunted by her truthful emphasis on the fact that life is full of suffering and unpleasantness. She’d later on tell me that it’s essential “to learn how to embrace suffering, to suffer well and to fight for life.” I hugged her and went for a walk. I don’t recall where I wandered to but a voice in my head kept telling me that I should have spoken at his funeral. It’s what any best friend would do. It’s what Peter Thiel did at Rene Girard’s funeral.
In the days that followed, I emailed the good doctor and told him that I was struggling with meaning. There was deep desire in me to be relentless and conscious in my pursuits but the nihilism within couldn’t allow any speck of positivity to thrive. He replied days later with a long message and a list of books that I could read to help me get a grip at life. I remember staring at the list as I sat with old Masnur in his restaurant along Oginga Odinga Road. He kept mumbling something in his broken Swahili. The book titles looked simple but they had a classical feel to them. There was Beyond Good and Evil byFriedrick Nietzsche, Crime and Punishment by a Russian author called Fyodor Dostoevsky and A Confession by Leo Tolstoy, another Russian scribe.
I read the three books in a record one week and felt like my breath was turning into air. Tolstoy’s autobiography, A Confession, was arguably the toughest to comprehend. In his heyday, Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers of his generation. He was a successful and a well-read man who used the meditation of philosophy, science and spirituality to make sense of his purpose. Yet, he was nihilistic in a deeply worrying manner. He believed life to be meaningless and spent his days hiding his guns from himself to avoid the possibility of ending it all.
I emailed my good doctor again and asked him why he would recommend me books about 18th Century figures who were deeply troubled. In his philosophical way, he told me that sometimes if you’re to pursue meaning and exhibit some positivity then you have to embrace your darkest fears and suffer through them instead of escaping them. That man has always had an intelligent answer for every question thrown his way.
I haven’t reached the pinnacle of leading a purposeful life but I am certainly not as confused as I used to be in regard to finding meaning. Every day presents an opportunity to learn new things. I no longer lose sleep over questions like “Why are we here?” I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing. But who knows? If Tolstoy with his vast knowledge and success struggled, then who am I to have to figured out?
Don’t stress about having everything figured out my people. Take each day to learn something new. No one ever truly found a perfect meaning or purpose in life. Everyone tries and stumbles and twists and falls. The most important thing is to rise after that. And try again. Do things that sit right with your soul. Live for yourself and accumulate knowledge on how you can best manifest your concept of Being. Your world might just get better. And who knows, the whole world might benefit from your best version.