When breath becomes air – Seize the Day – 7 Lessons on life being short

Life is short - When breath becomes air

I have been drafting this post for over four months, since February. I was compelled to write about my experiences back then, but then the discomfort set in, I did not feel compelled to share. With my Gran passing last week-end, I was forced to re-visit the “issue” of death. Death with all its euphemisms. The word “issue” doesn’t even fit, it makes death sound unnatural, like something that can be solved. Most people seem uncomfortable talking about death, I am one of them. `Death comes to us all, the most natural of things. Yet, talk about death is taboo.

I am sure many will feel too uncomfortable to read this, it was certainly uncomfortable to write and even more uncomfortable to share. Is it because I can do nothing (or very little) about it? – Reaching Aspiration is about being better, not more comfortable. As I have peeled back the mask of self-denial, more layers are being exposed, deeper, more fundamental issues. Facing them is not as clear cut as surface issues such as losing weight or getting fitter, there is no completion, no ultimate goal, no tangible improvement. But I am determined to explore these fundamental issues, experiment, seeking better, not perfection.

When Breath Becomes Air

“My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized.”  – Paul Kalanithi

Sometimes the difference between a good book and a great book is timing. Based on what has been read before and life challenges at the time. Sometimes a great book is great simply because of the quality of the prose and the rhythm of the writing. For me, When Breath Becomes Air was great for all of these reasons. Candice recommended this book to me last year and I added it to my ever growing reading list, which currently sits at over 100 books. I have no idea what compelled me to move it up the list. But for some serendipitous reason I did.

I read it in February. A month filled with emotions for me and my family; I read it 25 years after the death of my father, almost to the day. My dad, a man who died too young, potential largely unrealized. My dad died when I was nine, the day after my birthday. I didn’t deal with it then, not that it is something that can be dealt with like a problem to be solved. It is something we experience.

Lesson 1 – Death is not an issue to be dealt with. It is something experienced.

Instead I engaged in escapism, pretending he was a secret agent away on a mission. This make-believe worked some nights, on other nights instead I cried myself to sleep. I had overheard someone saying we all knew he was going to die. As a kid, I didn’t, I thought people went to a hospital to get better.

Lesson 2 – Be careful of using platitudes around children. Children are very literal. 

I still feel guilty that my mother was not with my dad in his last moments, because she was back home for my birthday, or put another way, because of me. I know I shouldn’t feel this guilt, my dad wouldn’t want me to, but still I do. This was something that was out of my control and understanding at the time. I cannot imagine the guilt people must feel when it was due to something they could have controlled.

Lesson 3 – Guilt is natural. We will find a way to make it our fault. Even if it is not, we will still feel that way.

Edit: Since writing this, my mother has explained the sequence of events more clearly to me and how she had returned in time to see him. Lesson 3a – Talk about the guilt felt. Perception is all we have until we talk about it, only after talking it through can we gain perspective and perhaps even the truth. 

Seize the Day

“Yes, there was sadness, but there was also sweetness and often infinite tenderness…an unforgettable opportunity to experience true intimacy.” – Marie de Hennezel

One of my first attempts to break the taboo of death in my own mind came a couple of years ago. I read Seize the Day – What the dying can teach us about living. On some occasions, death can eventually come as a blessing. It was the case with at least two of my grandparents. They were suffering, I suppose this makes it easier, if not by much. There are opportunities of incredible intimacy when someone is on their deathbed. Seize the Day shifts the focus to the beauty and the joyful celebration of life. Something so often missed as we avoid facing the uncomfortable reality.

Lesson 4 – Focus on the joy of the life lived, not the sadness of its completion.

Life is short – Relatively

“The longest and the shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment lasts the same for all and is all anyone possesses.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.14

One of the interview questions Peter Thiel (part of the PayPal mafia) asks is for a contrarian point of view. The immediate thing that came to mind for me, when I heard this, was I thought about how I consider 6 months to be a long time. Far too often I hear “It’s only six months”. I think of all I can do and experience in six months.

Lesson 5 – By ignoring death, we ignore the fact that our time is limited. Life is short.

So what is the point of this? Besides helping me, and perhaps even you, reflect on death. I am not sure. Perhaps it is just opening up the conversation, a way to broach the subject for exploration. Perhaps, it is to figure out what is important. Then prioritise.

We have all heard stories of people who find out they are terminal and suddenly they are focused and live the most beautiful years of their lives. Would it be easier if we all had a death clock?

Charlie Brown – “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy!”

Snoopy – “True, but all the other days we will not.”

Lesson 6 – Death clarifies what is important. Relationships and experiences?

I don’t like the common advice of “if this was your last day on Earth, what would you do.” Sure it has its place and one day it will be, but all the others it won’t be. We shouldn’t sacrifice all our future days for the possibility that this is our last. Should we be thinking in terms of “if this was my last month” or “decade”?

Perhaps think in terms of all three, day, month or decade and then compare. Life is short, but short is a relative measurement. Six months or sixty years, does not change my values, what is important to me. What I want to achieve. Perhaps my purpose is to merely set up something for the next person.

What is clear is that we tend to over-plan a day and at times a lifetime. Both pretty badly, over-estimating what we can achieve. We tend to underestimate what we can achieve in a year or a decade.

Is direction more important than destination? – Is achieving something a moment or all that it took to get there? An alternative would be to turn the question around, what would give you most pain to not complete. There is so much that could be done, a better focus is what won’t be done without you.

Lesson 7 – Focus on what you do not want to leave incomplete.

I’ll close this exploration with an obvious and oddly comforting truth, me being sad, isn’t going to make me happier. This is not callous, this is compassionate. Our departed loved ones would have wanted us to be happy.

So, I start each day with my mantra:

Today I chose happiness, to be alive is grand, I’m excited about everything, as everything is in my control; And what is not, is of no concern to me. I have 10,000 lives to change. Life is short, let’s do this.

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