Unlived Life: Reflections on "When Breath Becomes Air," 1

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A friend recently invited me to meet with a book group that was reading the late Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful memoir, When Breath Becomes Air.  It describes his heartbreaking but heart-mending sojourn through cancer into an all-too-early death at age 37.  While tragedy shadows his story, the narrative isn’t unrelentingly bleak. Kalanithi show us windows through which he looked out onto gratitude, wonder, and joy. His wife, Lucy, their baby daughter, Cady, and a quiet, questing faith provided many of those openings. 

What follows is the first of three posts, based on my own experience with serious illness, to a few of the book’s themes.

I resonate with Kalanithi’s question: “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” (31). As I navigate the sometimes stormy waters of my voyage toward a no-longer distant horizon, I’m unremittingly aware of regrets over unlived life. Simultaneously, I hear an incessant (thank God) call to live while still alive, rather than merely to exist and only to survive. 

For me, early in this uncharted passage, it was important to examine the reasons for unlived life, to ask myself hard questions:

Why had I allowed so many things of lesser importance to make greater claims on my time, energy, and attention?

Why had I been, unwittingly but certainly, a conspirator in my own diminishment?

How had I surrendered, before I knew I was doing it, primary authorship of my story to others?

What persuaded me to focus so myopically on duty that I was essentially blind to delight?

I’d been asking such questions for a long time, but diagnosis with Multiple Myeloma has made them unavoidable. I’m glad it has, for they’re essential. 

So, for me, examining the extent of my unlived life, along with my familiar rationalizations of it, was important.  However, after nearly four years at sea, I know that I’m capable of substituting the examination of unlived life for the actual living of it. 

It does little good to know why, if that knowledge doesn’t become practical wisdom— the wisdom of practice.  It is, I’m convinced, the wisdom of doing, in advance of feeling like doing, those things I imagine I would do if I was as fully alive as I yearn to be. It’s past time for me (paraphrasing William James), to act my way into new ways of feeling, rather than to wait on feelings to lead me into new ways of acting.

The only way to live is to live.