The Archetypal Coming of Age Story
Literature has always portrayed protagonists in a very predictable way. Think back to all the adventure movies, and fictional books that we all grew up reading. It generally revolves around a person who started out with meager means, with no particular talent. Setting the stage varies slightly: sometimes, the person has overcome a myriad of challenges but is hopeless that things will get better. Other times, this person has never ventured outside his or her sphere of influence, completely indifferent to the bigger picture. And some times, our protagonist enters the scene realizing he or she is meant for more, but patiently waiting for a catalyst to spark a change from the monotony.
Enter our protagonist. Forgettable. Unremarkable. Plain. Stuck in a rut. Mundane. Eyes big with wonder? Yes. Full of promise and untapped potential? Perhaps. Craves to break away? Absolutely.
Prior to coming to medical school, I firmly believe that we all fall into the latter one of these categories. I think we all have this expectation that an institution as respected as medical school can give us the tools to be better, to show us our true colors, to challenge us (and even break us). With hard work, we emerge victorious. It is our version of a coming of age story.
So then, does the metaphor ring true?
The protagonist, through instruction and experience, gather a set of tools and skills that slowly build upon each other. Clumsily at first, he wades through, unsure of the outcome…
Enter our villain. Full of complexity, but not without vulnerability. A formidable challenger. Undeniably invoking fear, our nemesis strikes…
In the life of a medical student, this villain varies in forms. It could be our own demons we have to endure from our past. It could take the form of a beast of a concept in Physiology, or a bad test grade. It could even be more intangible, such as the fear of failure or our own preconceived notions of death and suffering. Whatever the villain, when it strikes, it is absolutely debilitating. It picks at our fears, feeds off our insecurities. It renders us useless and forces us to question whether or not we were made for a vocation as challenging as medicine.
What does a hero do after he gets knocked down to his knees? This part of our story invariably builds suspense.
Enter the mentor. Wizened, full of battle scars, often toeing the line between hope and being jaded. Having seen the battle previously, this teacher gives profound insight and fills our hero’s depleted reservoir of strength to the brim.
Now that I’m facing the end of my first year as a medical student, I have met countless people I will never forget. By example, professors and doctors have shaped my opinion of medicine; some highlighting characteristics I wish to emulate, while others displaying attitudes I do not. Their success stands as proof that this vocation is indeed doable. Their guidance inspires. Their passion is contagious. Their altruism is endless.
Proceed through the journey. As our protagonist gains familiarity with his strengths, he also learns to overcome his weaknesses. Feats that once seemed impossible get rewarded with success. Save the maiden? Collect a treasure? Help a village? Then a happy ending.
So what of our hero? Sure, he may have acquired new skills and talents and met his share of challenges. If he is lucky, he’ll be able to save a life, earn a living, and be a hero through good deeds and actions. The road will continue to be treacherous for him, but there is a goal. And there is a happy ending.