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Monthly Archives: April 2017

What Makes for a Meaningful Life?

purposeful life

Last night we had our April Remedial Book Club meeting. The book was When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. Ordinarily I avoid reading any first person account of someone who dies of cancer, but since I run the book club, I felt obligated to read it.

I was surprised that some people didn’t think it was sad. I was practically crying during the Forward. But it was so well-written, and he was so brilliant. And he had spent his life trying to understand the meaning of life, so it seemed fitting that he had to wrestle with his own death in order to find an answer. Although I’m not sure what his answer ultimately was.

Had he lived, he would have made huge contributions to the field of neuroscience, but instead, his legacy is this book. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, but I guess ultimately it doesn’t matter, since it wasn’t his choice. It just seems sad that he spent his entire life studying, only to die shortly after graduating from medicine. That he didn’t get to see his daughter’s first birthday and all the other firsts she will experience. That, although he was married for 12 years, the two of them hardly spent any quality time together, since she was in med school, too. It’s like everything was on hold–all of the rewards of his hard work were yet to come. Until the diagnosis.

But there are no guarantees in life, right? I expected to be married for the rest of my life rather than get my heart broken at 34. I figured I’d live with the same financial security that I grew up with. I would never have predicted that my brother would have open heart surgery at 40 and I would be taking care of him. I’m not trying to say my life is horrible. I’m just saying that you can’t take anything for granted–the things you have, the things you imagined you would have, the things you could lose. You just never know what life will throw your way.

As my friend and I were discussing the book on the way home, she said that she didn’t think the book was sad because some people never live as full and purposeful of a life as Kalanithi did in the 30 something years he was alive. Which is true. He crammed a lot of living into a short period of time.

Plus, he lived being true to the person he was in every aspect of his life. There was nothing to regret. None of that dissonance that you experience when your heart, mind, and actions aren’t in alignment. Every part of him was on the same page.

I was telling my brother about our discussion and said that when I die, I will at least feel as though my life benefited other people, which is something. He responded by saying that is everything. That is THE thing that makes life meaningful. But is it? I feel like I’ve helped people more because it was what I was meant to do. I don’t feel like I had a choice. It doesn’t always make me happy. In fact, it directly contributes to my depression, because I burn out at the end of every term, no matter how hard I try to take care of myself.

Still, it does make me feel like my heart, mind, and actions are in alignment. And it is the part of my life that feels the most meaningful. So if this is my gift, even though it sometimes feels like a curse, at least it is one that I am giving away.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

not perfect

You know what’s hard about having depression and anxiety? Having to go about your day, looking like you feel fine when you’re not. I know everyone feels this way at times, but it’s something that I have to focus on a lot. Like, perhaps people have to prepare for the possibility of a thunderstorm every now and then, but it is a daily threat for me. So I always have to carry an umbrella and think about what shoes I want to wear. Whether my outfit is appropriate. Whether or not I’m at risk of getting struck by lightning.

But then again, perhaps I underestimate how bad the weather is for everyone. Because when I listen to my clients and read my friends’ Facebook status updates, I am reminded that there are all kinds of people walking around in pain, looking normal on the outside. We all feel broken in one way or another. It’s so convincing, though, when people look like they have it all, isn’t it? So easy to believe that you are alone in your pain.

When people tell me they read my blog, they always say something about how vulnerable I am in it. They mean it as a compliment, but even though I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, it always makes me feel self-conscious. Have I said too much? Did they read something that makes me look bad? Do they think less of me as a person? As a psychologist?

Still, it has been worth the risk, both because of how much I have helped other people and because of how freeing it has been. Of all of the things that I have done to battle my demons, blogging has been one of my most powerful weapons. And if there are clients who choose not to see me after reading my blog, I am learning to accept that I can’t be all things to all people.

I realized recently that choosing vulnerability is like choosing love: it’s risky, and you’re bound to get hurt, but it’s better than spending a lifetime trying to play it safe. It’s still hard to put myself out there and risk judgment and criticism, but most of the time it results in a meaningful connection with someone–perhaps even a complete stranger. Because now they know they are not alone. And I am reminded that I’m not alone, either.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people were willing to take the risk of being vulnerable? If instead of seeming like we had it all together, we could be honest about our pain? I know it would be unrealistic to go around telling everyone about the holes in our hearts all the time. Sometimes when someone asks how you are, you just have to say fine or you won’t have time to get a coffee before your first client. But if you want to know the truth about how I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. And if you read my blog, you will definitely find out.