We often talk about what it means to “truly live” or even more simply what it means to be considered “living.” This idea was one of the main points of the Terri Schiavo case and this idea came back to me in the form of a conversation.
A few weeks back, I was talking to one of my best friends about a book she had recently read called When Breath Becomes Air. The book is an autobiography written by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was an outstanding medical student at Stanford who was in the residency stage in his path to becoming a neurosurgeon and all was well in his life. Then one day, his life came crashing down as he was diagnosed with terminal Stage 4 lung cancer. My friend explained to me that Kalanithi wrote the book to not only tell his story but more importantly to discuss how to think of and approach life when diagnosed as terminally ill. Kalanithi talked about how he truly “lived”when he realized he was dying. Although I haven’t read the book (yet), I did a good amount of research and surfing behind Paul’s story to get a better idea of his vision of life.
As the news of the death of Stephen Hawking shook the world, I came across an article on the web, and a particular line caught my attention. “Those who live in the shadow of death often live the most” was the opening line of one of the paragraphs. Although the article was about Stephen Hawking and his life, I immediately thought back to the conversation with my friend about Paul Kalanithi. This is the idea that he so very well embodied in his memoir, and I would like to share a few thoughts on how he did so.
It is obviously a far stretch to claim Paul took his situation “in stride”, but the way he talked about how to approach death with grace makes the reader reconsider what it means to be fully alive. Paul often talked about his experiences in residency, and repeatedly brought up that he didn’t want to be a doctor to “help save lives” as the cliché goes. For Paul, the biggest goal was to help people understand death and illness. Helping save someone’s life wasn’t worth it to Paul if it meant that patient was now bound to a life that he would not find worth living (being severely handicapped, for example). This was a bigger failure to Paul than the patient dying. We often set an ultimatum for those that are ill. We think they must be saved at all costs because in our minds; death is the worst possible scenario.
Kalanithi claims life isn’t about avoiding suffering, because everyone will die. There is not point in worrying about death, because as long as you aren’t dead, you are still living. I will definitely have a much better idea about Paul’s message when I get around to reading the book soon, but the article that I came across reminded me of the conversation with my friend and even further, the Terri Schiavo case. There is of course no one right way to approach death. But Kalanithi’s message is certainly one that can potentially alleviate stress and make this adventure that we call life a little more pleasant.