While the aphorism “what goes around comes around” is by no means original to my mother, she most certainly repurposed it.* Along with her emphasis on the importance of education, this is a phrase that I remember being one of her earliest and most frequent messages to me and my siblings.
When I think of how this phrase is generally used in pop culture, it’s a thinly veiled reminder that, sooner or later, the universe will exact revenge on you for your awfulness. But whenever my mom said it, she was only ever referring to kindness. She and my dad both see kindness and generosity as foremost ideals to strive for, and they have always endeavored to live their lives accordingly.
For us, the norm as put forth by our parents was to go out of our way to help both loved ones and strangers alike. If my siblings and I can do this successfully, I think we’ll have a pretty good shot at living the types of lives we were raised to live—not only personally, but in my increasingly professional life as well as I continue to pursue medicine.
In her bustling pediatric emergency room in the heart of Harlem, my mom manages not only patients and their families, but also the third-year medical students whose emotional states range from overwhelmed to overeager. She has kept a carefully culled collection of interesting X-rays and cases over the years, which she shares with every medical student who rotates through that ER. She even brings her now-famous chicken biriyani to share with them, because she knows far too well how badly they could use a hot home-cooked meal.
She loves and cares for the medical students as if they were her own children, and indeed she has said to me that she does see her own children in their struggles. She firmly believes that, in some cosmic way, her help to them will manifest as help to her own children and family by others—she firmly believes in the karma of kindness.
While a rather abstract concept, it is a valuable one nonetheless. And in some cases, it can actually become quite tangible. When my mom visits her family in India, she makes sure to visit her former teachers as well. These are people who enabled and encouraged her on her rather ambitious journey from rural life in Kerala, India to medical school, where her challenges were confounded by attempting to learn not only the bizarre Latin terminology found in medical school textbooks, but also learning English and being far from the comforts of home for the first time.
As you might imagine, this is a rather humbling fact when I feel overwhelmed by my own exams. As they helped her all those years ago, she returns to visit and thank them whenever she can. It’s something that I know I (and perhaps all of us) could be better at: remembering and expressing our gratitude for all those people—mentors, loved ones, unexpected personal cheerleaders—who have helped us reach the point we stand at today.
*Adages are only one of many things in my mom’s repertoire of repurposing. Others include Ziploc bags, jewelry boxes, glass jars, and those sturdy Chinese food carry-out Tupperwares.
My mother is a very simple woman. Though she may be a well-respected physician at Columbia University, you might never know it if you saw her. She dresses simply, she speaks kindly, and she cares endlessly. Her wealth lies not in her tangible possessions—she doesn’t even own a pearl necklace. Her pearls are of wisdom, and it is those pearls that I hope to share with you.