Paul Kalanithi, MD was concerned with what matters most in life after he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at 36 years of age. In the short time he had left, he wrote When Breath Becomes Air, which is being published this Tuesday, January 12.
In his essay, How Long Have I Got Left? published in the New York Times two years ago, he sets out his dilemma:
“The path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d just spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? My oncologist would say only: “I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters most to you.”
Ever since my mother died three years ago, leaving me, the eldest child, next up at bat (that is: the first in line to die—I have trouble writing it plainly), I have been thinking about what matters most. The answer seems easy: my family, friends and activities I enjoy. But what about the laundry? Who will do the dishes? Certainly the mundane tasks of life don’t matter most, but they have to be done.
I woke up last night listening to James Taylor singing “The Secret of Life” in my head. Song lyrics are not usually a source of wisdom (though poetry certainly can be and songs are a kind poetry) but this song is really good. The first line: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” It’s a useful way of looking at how to live, whether we’re doing what matters most or just doing what needs to be done.
In the two years that Paul Kalanithi had left after he wrote the NYT essay, he fathered a child, spent a lot of time with his family, was able to return to caring for patients and wrote his book. Be sure to pick up a copy.