Death forces consideration of life’s meaning

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When a person faces death – their own or that of someone important to them – the finite nature of life is brought to the fore. That person may start to reconsider their values, what gives life meaning, what they want to “do” with their life.

The book When Breath Becomes Air is an unusual meditation on this transformation, written by a neurosurgeon trained in literature who was himself diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Paul Kalanithi weaves his lifelong pursuit of knowledge about the human condition with his struggles to define his own identity as his time horizon shrinks – Neurosurgeon? Father? Teacher? Researcher? Writer?

He notes that a health crisis requiring the intervention of specialized medical personnel qualifies as a major life event, and “At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living?”

As he experienced, when time no longer seems infinite, a person’s perspective on how to create meaning in life changes.

The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

If you were told you had ten more years left to live, or five, or two, how might that change the path you’re on?

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