Thursday, May 19, 2011


I'm grinning from ear to ear... I passed my Fellowship exam! So after four years of registrar calls, haphazard studying, fractured social intelligence and frequent medication adjustments in the entire household I am finally a (it sounds so weird) specialist anaesthesiologist. Well, at least from the end of next month when my reg time is officially finished and I can register as a consultant.

The examination was one of the longest days of my life. The day before, the accumulated stress took control of my body as if I'd been invaded by an alien life form: eczema attacked my body in burning filigreed ridges; my viscera felt as if they were being knotted into strange non-Euclidian shapes by a voodoo mathematician. The exam itself was not as horrendous an experience as I thought it would be - but I felt, suitably, that I had had my knowledge analyzed to forensic precision in all four dimensions, but without any malice.

I would not be sitting here blogging happily on the other end of the examination rift valley if it weren't for my wife, who has been continuously juggling the household, my mood swings and her own career while I was attending the shotgun wedding of my brain to Stoelting's Anesthesia and Co-Existing Disease. On top of that she's done a Diploma in HIV Management at the same time as my FCA - her results came out today and (of course) she sailed through it.

It's things like this that make my jaw drop at the power of Female Multi-Tasking. The wife is definitely a Quad-Core i5 to my first generation Pentium. And on that note, I have to smugly boast about my post-exam present to myself: a brand new iMac, the top-of-the-range 27" model that just came out. I'm in computing nirvana and this is my first post from it's gorgeous svelte platform. The new iMac is definitely the computer equivalent of Scarlett Johannson. (I've even named it Scarlett. Yes, I name my gadgets. My iPod is called Chuck, my HP laptop Sabrina and my portable hard drive Marvin in honour of its expansive information content and what I suspect is a dysthymic electronic disposition - it somehow always is reluctant to engage when first connected.)

In all, I've been truly humbled and touched by all the support from so many friends, family members that it honestly feels as if you all wrote the exam with me. What now? For the moment, work continues for the next few weeks - until the end of June when my contract runs out. I would love to stay in the state service but there are unfortunately no specialist posts available, and since my four years as a registrar are done I must make way for a new trainee. So I'm going to be unemployed for a bit - for the first time in my life really, and although that sounds scary I daresay it's high time. I've been running in a hamster wheel since school, everything decided for me - first Matric, then med school, internship, community service, anaesthesia training... (ok, I took a 2 year working holiday in the UK but it still involved anaesthesia locums to pay the way.)

I'm planning to take 2 months off and then I'll have to start worming my way into private practice. Unless, of course, a consultant post opens up somewhere reasonable. And I'll probably write up my Master's dissertation, given that the basic fieldwork was done as part of a larger study I was a data collector for before I got my registrar training post. The wife and I need a holiday so we're planning to do... a Mediterranean cruise! More about that later, for now I just wanted to check in and broadcast to the world that I can write FCA(SA) after my name.

Thank you for your indulging me :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Unto Thee All Flesh Shall Come

It sounds even more severe in Latin: Ad te omnes caro venidet. And hauntingly beautiful too, when set to music by Mozart or Faure. I’m referring, of course, to a line from the Requiem Mass; its words always leave me quiet and humbled. "All flesh" coming before its deity certainly echoes the basic tenets of the faiths that believe in a single omnipotent Creator - not just the Christian tradition into which I was born.

pawsesThe words provide me with comfort too, especially as I write this post: a dear friend of mine's cat was run over last night. She is devastated, and this comes in the face of a particularly tumultuous time for my dear friend. Life feels so random and cruel sometimes; I’m mulling over the old unanswered question, why do bad things happen to good people? I look at my two beautiful kitty babies playing silly buggers in the lounge and shudder at how quickly a life, no matter how small, can be extinguished.

I love animals. I grew up with cats and dogs and they have been present during profound moments of joy and tragedy in my life. Tiger and whale and komodo dragon thrill me equally. Fish enchant me, though they invariably end up floating belly-up in the tank when I’ve tried and keep them; I’ve realised I have bad aquatic juju. (Not as bad as my wife – she managed to kill a cactus.) Even the tarantula and the anaconda fascinate me, although I’d need Schedule 7 tranquilisers to come close to one of them. As far as I’m concerned, animals have souls. Some of you may might chide me for seemingly equating a feline life with a human one. Feel free. I need to write tonight, and I’m going to explore whether I can justify whether animals have souls.

Regular readers of this blog will know that, try as I might, I haven't been able to conceive of a Universe without there being Something Out There, no matter how in vogue it might be to join Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins’ New Atheism. I bear them no ill will and recognise they pose potently rational arguments against religion. But I believe - see an earlier post here if you want to delve deeper in to my disorganised soul-searching. And I have always believed that animals have souls (and no, we’re not going to fret about whether this applies to tiger or earthworm equally; I don’t know; deal with it.)

Of course it brings me comfort to believe that All Dogs (And Kitties) Go To Heaven. My heart feels this and my brain, bless it, refuses to comment. Both science and a lot of religion would beg to differ, the former supposing it is not necessary and the latter warning me that only Man has a soul.

This is an ancient debate. Aristotle believed that animals did have souls, but only primitive ones, whereas humans possessed a uniquely “rational” soul. Descartes was dismissive of the idea altogether, this stemming directly from his famous statement Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am); implying animals were not self-aware, and that the concept of a “soul” for them was unnecessary.

I’m sorry Monsieur Descartes. That is too cold  for me. Here I conveniently turn to religious traditions for comfort. I realise now I don’t need – nor want – proof. I need to believe that the little kitty who gave my friend so much love is now part of something eternal, something beyond my understanding.

In Judaism, it is generally agreed that all created beings have a divine spark in them which is a manifestation of God; this divine spark is considered a soul (however primitive) and is furthermore immortal.

Christianity - starting out as it did as an offshoot of Judaism – follows generally the same belief, however the concept of an animal soul is not stated in any New Testament text that I know of. Islam is perhaps more explicit. In the the Qur'an it reads, “All of Allah’s creation, including the animals, will be resurrected. After Allah has judged between the animals, He will order them to turn to dust” (Surah Takweer 81:5). Buddhism, however, embraces the concept of animal souls directly and unequivocally, asserting that every creature has the potential to become divine through the cycles of birth and rebirth.

But Christian tradition does sometimes push the anthropomorphic envelope quite tantalisingly: consider Saint Francis of Assisi; the Catholic tradition has him as the patron saint of animals. (There is no patron saint of rocks.) St Francis’s Canticle of Creatures is high poetry, calling on “Brother Sun” and “Sister  Moon” (never mind all living breathing things) to praise their God. For those Christians who are Romophobic, the exhortation for all creatures to praise God occurs in the Psalms too - the book actually closes with this very thought in Psalm 150. The Psalms are, of course, revered by all Christians and Jews, whether Catholic or Protestant, Reform or Orthodox. Now, to praise something would mean to be aware of something other than one self, and this implies self-awareness, and… you see where I’m going. Call my definition of soul a desperate cherry-picking of logic, but it makes me happy. And while there are no equations for happiness that I know of, it takes a nanosecond for my soul, if you like, to assume that any God it would believe in wants me to be happy.

As an aside, I think people who are allergic to existentialism forget that the philosophy is not incompatible with the concept of happiness. Rather, I think Sartre, Camus and Co. urge that we have to create (what a loaded word) our own happiness in order not to go insane in an absurd reality. But the Absurd doesn't have to be so utterly depressing. From my limited perception as a human being, locked in three dimensions of space and a fourth of linear time, an absurd reality may sometimes be heartbreaking, but it is also very frequently hilarious. Is this not the same as "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away?" Why does black humour come so naturally to us when the existential chips are down?

My favourite author, Douglas Adams, put it beautifully:

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened...

(All this from a self-professed atheist who - unwittingly, or in a mammoth exercise of poking fun at himself - wrote one of the most spiritually moving books I have ever read, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I just love the fact that Douglas ended up having an Anglican funeral for all his atheist sensibilities.)   

I could go on and on, and so often I do. But before I stop I have to mention the astonishing account of Temple Grandin, a respected professor of animal behaviour who is also a highly functioning autistic. Before autism was described as a medical / psychological condition, many traditions would have labelled an autistic individual as… soulless.  Grandin’s bestselling book Animals in Translation tugs at both brain and heart-strings: she discovers her own humanity (and her soul?) through her work with animals.

So what can I conclude? Not much, except what I feel, and my mind - still - is happy to shut up. And what I feel is this:

If a single purr from a single kitten can flood a single mind with warmth and fuzziness, surely it’s immaterial whether this is purely a cocktail of serotonin and dopamine tricking the brain, or a ripple of love traversing a cosmos that actually gives a damn. And if this fellow creature - fashioned like me from gnarled strands of DNA and proteins that look like coral forests - makes me stand in ancient awe, damn straight it has a soul.

So I say this on behalf of all those who have lost a loved one, whatever the amount of chromosomes they possessed when they flashed their divine spark across the planet.

Exaudi orationem meam;
ad te omnis caro veniet.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

(Hear my prayer; unto Thee all flesh shall come. Grant them eternal rest o Lord, and may perpetual light shine on then.)