“Keep thy mind in hell,” heard Silouan the Athonite, a Russian monk born in the late-19th century, “and despair not.”
As story goes, Saint Silouan was waging ceaseless wars against his pride, yearning for God to free him. Tradition has it that instead of swift liberation, however, Silouan was answered with a divine paradox: wrestle with your torment, but be not tormented.
Over 100 years later, second-year medical student Jacob Blythe reiterated that same paradox at the annual Medicine and the Muse symposium held on campus Wednesday, April 18. There, 12 medical students explored our enigmatic nature through music, film, poetry, prose, and even research.
Blythe, for example, offered a scholarly presentation on metaphor, vision, and the ethical medical conscience, which drew on the themes of Silouan. Second-year medical student Hayden Ware read a short story, “Anatomy,” recounting the plight of a first-year medical student. And first-year Dillon Stull’s “Reflections on a Brain Specimen” walked poetically from brain waves to gyri to thoughts of life past — until arriving at the night’s unspoken, yet central thread: generous and self-giving love.
At Medicine and the Muse, this diverse virtue — love — united a host of discipline-spanning works.
In the symposium’s opening piece, Nitya Rajeshuni and Kevin Sun performed a rendition of Adele’s “Remedy.” Rajeshuni, whose gripping voice holds listeners captive, sang on the poignant pitfalls of romance: “This ain’t easy,” she belted with charm, “it ain’t meant to be.”
Natalia Birgisson read from her soon-to-be-published novel, The Hippocratic Oath, weaving together tales of family and loss. Second-year student Julie Barzilay explored, through research, online communities of patients with rare illness.
Throughout the symposium, though, this thread of love ran parallel to a central tension: Who are we, and what do we want?
This tension was explored, in part, through three musical performances. The first was Josh Wortzel’s original song “Lady Dynamo,” which painted pictures of an electric, engrossing, contradictory relationship. The second piece, by Stephen Marcott, was a ukulele covering of “Hey There Delilah,” which skimmed back and forth between youth and longing. And in the symposium’s lone classical piece, a Prokofiev violin sonata, Aaron Wilk and graduate student Misha Raffiee whisked the audience through virtuosic tempests of tempo.
For all the philosophizing of artful humanism, this symposium was, in truth, more show than tell. That fact was beautifully reiterated as the night’s final work, a short documentary by third-year medical student Xinyuan (Lisa) Zhang, projected personal visions of the aging Chinese population.
Vision, after all, was Blythe’s keystone to medical ethics and morality. Perhaps, his presentation suggested, there is another way to see the world: a literary way, a musical way, a poetic way, a social way, a human way.
In an introduction, Medicine and the Muse director Audrey Shafer, MD, noted that to be human is to contain multitudes – we may be students, and artists, and doctors in part, but we are also fighters, and lovers, and sufferers and more. The medical humanities are not an idle object to look at, therefore, but rather a fresh lens to look through.
But how do we in medicine understand – and treat, and cure, and heal – our diverse selves and societies? As Silouan, Schafer, and the symposium show, we do so with humanism. We are better doctors, more insightful writers, elevated scientists, when our hearts and minds see in stereo.
“Keep your mind in hell,” Blythe spoke to the audience that night, “and despair not.” Humanity seeks answers in opaque mirrors, he might have added, but through loving complexity we will see ourselves in full.
Aldis Petriceks in an anatomy scholar and research assistant at Stanford’s Division of Clinical Anatomy. He writes an online column for the Palo Alto Weekly, and graduated from Kenyon College in 2017.
Photo of Josh Wortzel by Claire Rhee