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.

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