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More Whole Than When Healthier: Reflections on "When Breath Becomes Air," 3

This post is the last of three in which I respond to themes in Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful book, When Breath Becomes Air. 

Kalanithi’s said: “Severe illness wasn’t life altering; it was life-shattering” (120).  I agree.

To observers who don’t have (because no one can) access to my inner experience, it likely seems that cancer has altered, rather than shattered, my life. After all, I moved from serving as a pastor, not into disability, but to teaching in a university. I’ve slowed down, but I’m still on my feet. Though it takes me longer to recover, I can do many of the things I did before undergoing the effects of cancer and its treatment. Alterations.

The shattering is more internal, especially of illusions which I was foolish to hold in the first place, illusions of control and immunity. I’d been making plans for how my 60s and 70s would unfold; I based them on the assumption that I’d continue to enjoy good health and that I’d be in a position to move steadily toward new expressions of my calling and, eventually, to retire paid work. Shattered illusions.

This illness has wounded my inner life in other ways, and it has brought long-ignored experiences of earlier brokenness into painful awareness. My body has been battered; and, in ways too personal to describe here, so also have my senses of worth and identity.

Reynolds Price called the moving memoir of his struggle with spinal cancer, A Whole New Life. He described a wholeness which emerged from his confinement and pain and a newness which rose from the collapse of his old freedoms and assumptions.

Not long ago, I told a therapist that I wouldn’t want to be without the lessons cancer is teaching me or, even more, without the life which his being born in the shadow of death. I don’t believe that God gave me cancer; I could not love such a God. I do trust, though, that the Spirit of Jesus is at work within me and will not waste my suffering.

Here, then, is my astonished witness: I am more whole than I was when I was healthier. I am more alive than before I had a terminal illness. My inner life has been shattered. It is being refashioned.  The stark loveliness of Hemingway’s line is becoming true for my heart and spirit, though not for my body: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (A Farewell to Arms)