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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.