A Young Neurosurgeon Figures Out the Meaning of Life as He Faces Death

We live life knowing there will eventually be an end, but life’s distractions overshadow this awareness.

But when life does near its end, we suddenly become super aware of it.

Then we fill in the gaps with inner illumination and give it a name – the meaning of life.

Paul Kalanithi – a neurosurgeon – chronicles this aspect of life in his memoir “When Breath Becomes Air”. Paul was diagnosed with a terminal cancer right when his career was booming. In his memoir, he shares his journey and stories of other patients who shared the same experience as him and how he set to find the true meaning of life.

He provides an insight into our sense of self and how it puts down the sense of possibility and potential. We work hard to become something. But what is our self-worth, when that possibility of existence is nipped in the bud? Kalanithi answers questions that revolve around these implications.

“At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a beautiful catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends….. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.”

He recalls incidents when his earlier identity and later future fate came together and collided with violence. The book speaks about something way bigger and more powerful than his story. Human beings continue to dictate rules and regulations based on which failures take place.

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Paul comes to some fascinating conclusions. Here is an exempt of why he chose to study literature over neuroscience:

“The throwaway assumption that the mind was simply the operation of the brain [was] an idea that struck me with force; it startled my naïve understanding of the world. Of course, it must be true — what were our brains doing, otherwise? Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms — the brain was an organ, subject to all the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic. That night, in my room, I opened up my red Stanford course catalog, which I had read through dozens of times, and grabbed a highlighter. In addition to all the literature classes I had marked, I began looking in biology and neuroscience as well.

“A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values… Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.”

He then goes on to say why language is such a powerful force:

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“I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans — i.e., “human relationality” — that undergirded meaning. Yet somehow, this process existed in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiologic imperatives, prone to breaking and failing. There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.”

Then as he nears the end, he comes to some startling conclusions about life and death:

“Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. 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.

“There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

“That message is simple:

“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 a 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. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

Originally published on Ideapod’s blog.

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