Understanding Life Through Death

When Breath Becomes Air. by Paul Kalanithi

I had heard a little bit about this book and knew it probably wouldn’t be an easy read, but I had some time as I was recovering from surgery.  I saw it on my local library’s express read and grabbed it without too much thought.

To say I was not prepared is an understatement.  I knew he died, all readers know as it is written in the description of the book.  I was not prepared for the connection I would make with his longing to understand living and death.  I was not prepared to see the honest glimpses of a neurosurgeon resident that were not in any way above me or better than my existence.  And in the end of it all to experience his experience of death as told by his wife in the epilogue.  I did not expect nor prepare for the grief I experienced for someone I didn’t know.

I expected the story of a neurosurgeon resident to be somehow not so relatable to my life.  Not that I feel a doctor’s life is more worthy than others but I figured there would still be a sense of achievement within Paul’s journey that would set our lives far apart.  But I did not get that sense at all in his story.  He actually starts out by saying he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps into medicine but instead studies literature.

What really pulled me in was the honestness of a story told from his perspective, in his search for meaning and trying to understand death.  This search is ultimately what leads him to medicine.

It was only afterwords that I read the reviews that said this is a book that will stay with the reader for a long time.  It does.

His death is heartbreaking not because his life felt superior and should have been saved but because losing a soul is heartbreaking in itself.  It is heartbreaking for his family and friends and now for all the readers who mourn the loss of someone who was trying to find his meaning and path in this world that can be so joyful and so cruel.

We are all just trying to find our way, our meaning in this world that can be so joyful and cruel.  Why do some have to leave so soon.  We can’t answer that except to know that it’s not about fairness in the way we measure it.  I believe there must be a cosmic reason.  A soul contract that we made before we came that contains the wisdom of losing lives so early.  That we really don’t know how long we have for a reason.

It leaves me with the realization that I focus way too much on the things that don’t matter in the end.  That the world supports me in doing this.  Our systems are messed up.

I focus way too often on losing the last 10 pounds, having clear skin, and owning the “right” stuff.  Consumerism is constantly knocking on my door, your door.  To buy more, upgrade, that all the latest goods will make our lives better.

They don’t.

Kindness, compassion, working to the good of our friends and family.  Lifting spirits, supporting each other in our journeys, understanding that we are usually trying our best from we we are.  That some start with very little in life.  Not just from a materialistic perspective but with a good family, friends and supportive community.  What would the world look like if we all had a good start?

And if we didn’t have a good start in life.  Can we support each other or at the very least give the benefit of knowing that everyone is doing there best in the moment.  Sometimes those moments we see aren’t our best and acknowledging that it doesn’t mean we are stuck there.  We can be better, love better, and treat each better.

It was a disconcerting experience grieving for someone I didn’t even know but I’m so glad I read that book.  It has stirred in me a commitment to being more conscious of my life.  To appreciate the struggle as a part of the beauty of life.

That there is more for me in my life journey.  It is all so uncertain right now what that is but I’m trusting a universe that would bring us Paul Kalanithi who so bravely bared his soul so that we could see ourselves reflected in the infinite universe.

Life Lived

What makes a meaningful life?  How do we find meaning in the world, how do I find meaning in a vastness that can seem so isolating and unwelcoming?  How do some people seem to know from very young their direction, calling, and path that they chose.  That path may not always be straight and may be bumpy but it is a clear path.  Then there are those that can’t find a path or the path never seems right.  Is it not seeing what is right in front of me?  That maybe the path is there but I don’t have the faith or the perception to know it.  I have been trying to find meaning, searching in books, websites and all around me about how to be healthier and self help books that tell me I can find meaning and improve my life.  Meaning is not found in those books or websites.

They mean well.  Finding values, finding my passion, increasing productivity, learning positivity, and finding the fear and doing in anyway are all written with great intentions.  Intentions that you and I can learn from. But they don’t give us the key to meaning.  Why has it taken so long for me to figure that out?

Meaning is in the mundane.  The first time I heard this I thought what they heck is that?! That can’t be it.  Meaning has to be something powerful.  An epiphany that will come to me in a great flash of light and insight.  A great calling that is grand and of course obvious in it’s grandness.

I realize now it’s actually really small.  It’s morning hugs with my kids, getting the bowls of cheerios and bananas, packing backpacks, driving to work, working, making dinner, the other thousands of minutia of the day.

Meaning is that life is not always easy or positive and can be downright sad and heart breaking.  It’s living those moments and learning to see them with the eyes knowing time here is limited.  That maybe a morning hug and kiss may be the last.  We can’t live exactly like everyday is a last day.  Otherwise many days of work would not be done!  But being more present in the moments and seeing them as the integral pieces of a life lived.

Does it mean that I now wake up everyday filled knowing that I can stop searching?  No.  It seems so hard to see these small moments in their glory to not want there to be something big that I still need to be driving myself towards.

I still feel a deep yearning that I have much more meaning to to discover in this life.  But the work needs to be more internal.  I can read but not with the goal of finding the answers out of me but in order  to know that we all journey together.  It’s not someone else’s answer that I need but a way into my own answer.

Lessons Not Learnt

I feel like a crab in a crab pot of life.  I am so ready to leave behind limiting beliefs, negative thought patterns, and my self sabotaging behaviours.

I know that I fall into negative thought patterns, I focus on the things that my husband is not doing and lamenting in my mind how I do the heavier share of child care even though I also work full time.

I eat too much sugar.  It is my reward when I’m tired, when I need to feel nurtured, and when I want a boost.

I focus on losing the last 10 pounds.

Deep inside I want to feel seen, loved, and appreciated and it often comes out as needy or I go into self-martyre mode and loop eventually into anger.

I have worked on feeling worthy.  And I do.  I do believe I’m worthy of love.  I’m not perfect.  I’m ok with my ability to have dance parties with the kids, to get some good meals on the table (not always but enough), to be a great instructor at work, and to be really settling into who I am.

But where I get dragged back down into the crab pot is with relationships.  I feel like I’m in a pattern of not being seen.  It started with my family and two other relationships before being married.  I can’t really expect to be seen if I don’t show who I am to the other person which I really struggled with in my 20’s and 30’s.  I’ve really worked at discovering who I am and being ok with it!  I want to live more in the being of me.  Hmm, that doesn’t seem to make sense but is the raw truth.

Some of my seemingly sabotaging behaviours are really just coping mechanisms for not feeling seen.  And that’s where my work is.  I need to be work on my self compassion and take the focus away from the external need for validation and truly give that to myself.

My hope is to break the patterns that keep repeating and really this is my journey as a soul finding their way, making their way to meaning in this life.

 

Restlessness

I have felt restless for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure exactly when it started. At what point did I go from the live in the moment to moment ease of the childhood mind to restless?
There are as many reasons underlying this feeling as there is ways to deal with it.

Some of the coping methods I’ve used are constructive and others destructive and I’ve done lots of both.

Overeating, sugar, and alcohol are not so conducive to positively working out good changes.

Trying to work through what this feeling is trying to communicate gives seeds to work with.

And it seems that this restlessness is my tool that I’ve been given to push me to examine my life and figure out what I need to do next.

When I figure out one piece, there is always another wave which at times can feel suffocating and depressing. I’m realizing that the waves will keep coming but if I can learn to move with the waves it is not so crushing. I can see the continual waves with more patience and compassion.

Todays wave is about work. My work history is a combination of being tossed around in the crashing waves to a joyous learn to surf only to have a major wipeout a couple of years ago.

When I graduated from high school there was a recession going on. Add to that limited funds for university and a lack of confidence in my chosen field of teaching, I ended up dropping out of university at the start of second year. I managed to find a full time job working in a coffee shop and at least was able to support myself while searching for what to do next. I was introduced to a boyfriend’s sister who was a CMA – a designated accountant.

That was never my dream but I could take classes at night while I worked and that is how I fell into the accounting profession.

It was not my first choice (or twentieth for that matter) but the whole seven years it took, I could work which was needed. I could never find a fit though in any of the accounting jobs that I had. Thankfully twelve and a half years ago had the confidence to get back into teaching – accounting at a college.

I think some people are not only satisficers or maximizers (http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2006/06/are_you_a_satis) when it comes to choosing but I think it happens in other areas too.

I’ve realized that I tend to have the maximizer in me always on, always scanning to see if any job, relationship, house, and any other part of my life are what’s best for me.

A couple of years ago I had been chugging along quite happy in my role as an instructor and also working on some long-term planning for my department. I already had the restless feeling creeping up after ten years of teaching, I was ready for a different opportunity. Insert some serendipitous miscommunication and an intolerant boss and I switched departments.
I’m still teaching accounting but in a different campus and department.
I love that I know have more freedom in the way I deliver courses and it has been a good change.
But the restlessness is still brewing.
I know part of the solution is learning skills to just let the restlessness go. I don’t have to act on it all the time. Meditation could be one or for me right now (although a 6 yr and 4 yr old tend to be great interrupters!) I have an energy routine to get back into my body that has been working really well. It only takes ten minutes which has meant consistency almost every day.

On the other hand do I want to do another 10 or 15 years doing what I’m doing? My other loves have been psychology (I went back to finish a BA in psych a few years ago). And a chronic illness that has been in remission for a long time but never far from the surface has me exploring alternative healing as a way to fulfill a deeper desire to really work with people at a more personal level.

I don’t know what the answer is yet but I know for sure that the restlessness will keep pushing me to figure it out.