OpEd, Politics

Is our path set at birth?

There is something called a quarter-life crisis. It is part of life. You are going to wake up one morning and find yourself mired in a trap so hard to escape. You could be a hard-working person and still fail at something. Maybe you are in your last year at the university and before you graduate, you just get in an accident or a shocking diagnosis. (God forbid)

This is what happened to one man in the name of Dr. Paul Kalanithi who succumbed to cancer days after completing his education as a doctor. Paul left a book behind worth reading for anyone going through the same process.

I have been reading this book and I never get tired of reading the work. It is about life and how we should live before we are completely gone. This book pulls you into the sublime that you have to keep escaping from there to confirm you are still alive.

‘When Breath Becomes Air.’ gives these unexplainable spasms, for a moment you feel you have become one and the same with the book. That is the scary bit about this book.

It is a memoir of this neurosurgeon who at the peak of his career realizes he has lung cancer and is torn apart. He had spent all his life diagnosing other people, pronouncing some dead. Now for the first time, he faces his own death. And he faces it at this point when everything should be making sense and converging.

Kalanithi enters his neurosurgery residency and thrives through the programs. Months before his graduation as a professor, he finds out he has cancer. For the first time in his life, he faces life as a patient having faced it before as a doctor, diagnosing, treating, performing surgeries, breaking bad news and giving hope. Now he steps into the shoes of the many patients he had handled.

What do you make out of life at the pinnacle of your career when you receive this kind of news? This is the question you should be asking yourself when you are going through some challenging times.

At first, his cancer therapy worked, but the brain tumors seemed cleared. He even returns to the hospital and works hard, saving more lives. Then it returns, this time worse than before. He goes for chemotherapy, and it almost kills him much faster. He then learns that death may be a one-time event but living with a terminal illness is a process.

He decides to finally have a child with his wife as he goes through those five stages of grief. Sometimes it is anger, sometimes depression, sometimes acceptance.

He learns to live by learning to die. Kalanithi realizes that the way out is to face his mortality and understand what makes life worth living.

Yet he is brutally honest, he speaks of these flashes of anger where he is angry at God; “I work my whole life to get to this point then you give me cancer!”

For the first time, he also awakens to the limitations of science. He notes that no system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience. Science for example is unable to grasp the most central aspects of human life; hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering and virtue.

Kalanithi asks everyone to embrace the struggle toward truth while recognizing that the task is impossible. “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

That we are in an urgent race against time, having important things to say and do and we ought to do them with such honesty and authenticity.

He dies before completing the book, but leaves the last words to his 8-month daughter;” When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. At this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

When Breath Becomes Air is that realization that maybe we spend half of our lives living, the next half reflecting. And that the meaning of life is to be able to look back and count it all joy, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the smooth and the rough, the sweet and sour. And be glad that you had a chance to live before you died. For therein is the meaning of this life.

The book is about hope, patience and the willingness to move forward even in the face of daunting challenges. The message is relevant in today’s world. There are many of us who are going through the same challenges.

It could be sickness, poverty, or any life-altering ailment. It is through these problems that we realize we need to live before we die. I know and it is true that life hurts, but it wasn’t our choice, need to live every moment with the hope that it will be alright in the long run.

“Time for me is double-edged: Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence — and eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire.

There are, I imagine, two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time, it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. But even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoise-like approach. I plod, I ponder, and some days I simply persist.”

This was very true of him. This life is very painful, and we will never understand even for one reason why things change their faces. There is no doubt, that most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past.

The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed. But the best of all is to give your best even when death stares you in the face. To love, give and stand up for someone when you still can is what counts most in this life, after all, it is just vanity. Please learn to live before you die.

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