Everything is Open to Interpretation

There is no such thing as failure, there’s just giving up too soon.

-Jonas Salk

Wherever you’re reading this, I know it has been a trying week for you. The COVID-19 Coronavirus has affected everyone across the world, and the fear and uncertainty have put a lot of things into perspective for many of us. As a general rule, I think, global health crises tend to have that effect.

In contemplating this week’s post, the situation made me feel guilty about dedicating so much time and energy to finding my purpose and sharing it here. How could I be so self-absorbed to think this is worthwhile, when there are people dying and susceptible populations living in what seems to be a well-founded fear of leaving their homes?

Yes, I am not completely unaware of the fact that many would consider this pursuit–this fight–as wholly the product of egotism, perhaps verging on narcissism.

But then I started to dig deeper. I sincerely believe that we are all here for a reason and that by finding and living our individual purposes, we will all live better, more fulfilled lives. And in my experience, people who live better, more fulfilled lives seem to treat others with more respect and understanding. They seem to be (even if slightly) more secure, less fearful, and more willing to choose compassion over fear or hatred. So, if my little blog can help move our society’s needle in that direction in even a microscopic amount, is it still a selfish pursuit?

I am not certain of the answer, and perhaps it will always be that way–open to interpretation. Either way, I obviously did decide to continue with a post this week, if for no other reason than the hope it will provide you with something to think about other than COVID-19, which seems inescapable right now.

To remind us that this too shall pass, and that there are brilliant minds working around the clock to make sure of it, I wanted to highlight a scientist whose pursuit of his dharma was undoubtedly selfless. Unlike many in his profession who show a passion for their field at an early age, this scientist wasn’t born with a love for science. He knew his heart’s calling, but it took some time to figure out how to best interpret and act on it. Thankfully for us all, he did win that fight, and in the process he saved millions of lives.

This week, we will attempt to learn something from the purpose-driven life of Dr. Jonas Salk, the American medical researcher and virologist who developed the polio vaccine.

Dr. Jonas Edward Salk

“As a child, I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that.”

-Dr. Jonas Salk in an interview with the Academy of Achievement

Born in New York City, Jonas Salk was a child of Ashkenazi Jewish parents who had emigrated from eastern Europe. Although his parents weren’t well-educated, Salk’s intelligence and scholastic aptitude were recognized early on, and he entered high school at the age of 13, college at the age of 15. Salk’s purpose began calling to him when he was young, but it didn’t relate at all to scientific discoveries. According to Salk, “As a child, I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that.”

Although Salk originally had aspirations of being a lawyer, his mother persuaded him to become a doctor instead. Consequently, he spent his college years earning a Bachelor’s in chemistry and taking all of the prerequisites for medical school. However, he soon realized that, despite his mother’s wishes, his purpose was not to practice medicine. Instead, he discovered a passion for research.

The laboratory work gave Salk direction and sparked his curiosity, but his own words reveal that in research he merely found the right conduit for his life’s purpose: to help humankind. He said in an interview, “I had opportunities along the way to drop the idea of medicine and go into science…I was told that I could, if I wished, switch and get a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but my preference was to stay with medicine. And, I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.”

Salk in 1955, the year his vaccine was announced a success

From there, Salk was exposed (pun intended) to virology through work on influenza and a postgraduate position in a laboratory focused on virus research. In virology, Salk had discovered the best possible vocation for channeling his purpose. He was granted his own lab, but a call from a national foundation asking him to study different strains of polio led him to the work that would change all of our lives.

At the time, polio was one of the most feared epidemics in America. In 1952 alone, it infected tens of thousands of people, killed several thousand, and left over 20,000 children paralyzed. In 1955, when Salk announced the success of the clinical trial for his vaccine, the world responded with gratitude and action. Several countries began employing his vaccine immediately to protect their people, and as a result of Salk’s work, the threat of polio has been almost entirely eliminated.

So, while Dr. Jonas Salk had a keen sense that his purpose was to help humankind, his interpretation of how best to accomplish that purpose changed several times over the course of his life. He initially thought it would be through the practice of law, then medicine, then in the lab, and finally, in researching viruses.

If a young person told you they believed their purpose was to help humankind, what would you expect them to go on to become? I personally tend to think of an activist, a politician, a religious leader, or perhaps a member of the PeaceCorps. Salk himself seemed to think it would be as a lawyer at first, but through his changing interpretation of what it means to help human kind, he was able to fight to find the best fit for him to carry out his calling.

So, the lessons from Dr. Jonas Salk? A purpose is something innate, something within you that screams to be acted upon. However, how you act upon it is up to you, and your interpretation of that purpose is the only one that matters. And thanks to Dr. Salk, we now know that our interpretation can change over time until we find the best way to carry it out.

Be safe and stay healthy. This too shall pass, and soon we will have our own Jonas Salk to laud as the one whose purpose led them to defeat COVID-19.

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