“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.” ~ Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
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This past week, I read an article in the New York Times about the author of the above quote, Dr. Paul Kalanithi, and was struck by how his tragic life story could resonate with so many physicians. Paul was a very accomplished man by the age of 37 with three undergraduate degrees including a Master of Arts in literature at Stanford, a Master of Philosophy at Cambridge, graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, and a Neurosurgery residency at Stanford. He was completing a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience when he learned of his terminal diagnosis of cancer.
Like so many people who pursue medical training, “he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in Neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.” (paraphrased from Dr. Abraham Verghese’s introduction to the book in the New York Times article). Similarly, I just read a report from my physician health colleagues in Quebec on the state of knowledge and preventive approaches in Physician Health. In the report, Roman and Prévost state, “Many physicians come to believe that they cannot simultaneously be fulfilled personally and professionally, and must therefore put their personal lives on hold until retirement”.
Despite knowing he was soon going to die, Paul and his wife decide to have a child (as the above quote alludes to). I am anxious to learn more about the impact his daughter had on him knowing his death was imminent (my copy of his book is on its way). Paul lived a short 22 months after his diagnosis and in that time he left the world with an offspring and a piece of literature that has been referred to as ‘unforgettable’. The courage to open his heart at such a vulnerable time is a lesson on the purpose of life – it really isn’t about avoiding suffering as he so poignantly says, for without suffering, we wouldn’t know profound joy.
A meaningful life
Paul’s story is also a remarkable example of finding meaning, even in the darkest time. When asked, “What is the meaning of life?”, no one answer nor a right answer exists. However, as with happiness, I think we all hope for and strive to have a sense of both meaning and purpose in our life.
Is a ‘a happy life’ different from ‘a meaningful life’? Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaker and her team found some distinct differences between happiness and meaningfulness. The one that resonated the most with me had to do with a sense of self and identity.
“If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community.”
The bigger message
As we all know, happiness is fleeting and often self-serving, but living with a sense of meaning and purpose is more constant and often serves others. We mustn’t wait to explore our journey and develop a sense of awareness – life is happening right now. We can only hope to touch the lives of others in a way that Paul has while we still have time. And in our search for meaning, the most likely path is the one not taken, unique to us.
On that note, I leave you today with Robert Frost’s well-known, inspirational poem The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.